This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.
It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment, waiting…
As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)
It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to have conversations with other characters. Héctor is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)
As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and claustrophobic – and deadly.
And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water tank with no way out.
There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.
And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it to find out.
(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?
OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)? Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)
For a true NF account of life for migrants crossing the southern border, try this one by Luis Alberto Urrea: The Devil’s Highway (2004).