The General and the Jaguar (Little, Brown and Company), by Eileen Welsome, is a historical account of General John Pershing's pursuit of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, after the latter's attack on Columbus, New Mexico in March of 1916. The book is a lively, highly readable history of this episode, and its aftermath, but ultimately, and unfortunately, it does not give a balanced view of its main characters, particularly Villa.
Welsome's view of history is to focus on the details, which is
fortunate for the casual reader who wants to be entranced by a good story and
fascinating characters. The author does
briefly turn her attention to some of the systemic causes of the Mexican
Revolution- the land concentration among the Mexican elite during the Porfiriato, the blatant and brutal usurpation of village
communal lands, and the rampant political corruption of the Mexican
regime. But the author truly lingers on
the personal passions, and even savagery, of Villa, what he wore the night
before the attack, and the minute-by-minute rendering of the action as Villa
brazenly invades the
Villa's attack is
primarily, according to Welsome, a vengeful act to
But placing Villa's
reasons for revolution and his subsequent raid on
What becomes a critical problem for The General and the Jaguar, however, is what we might call the 'morality of description.' What we focus on or how we focus on it, whether we are fiction or nonfiction writers, gives it importance, or takes it away from something else. In Welsome's book, the murdered American citizens are named, and given personal histories, and described in loving detail. But the one hundred Mexicans who die in the raid are, well, just formless 'Mexicans.' They die, but no reader feels their pain, nor knows them as full characters, nor why they died. And so it goes for much of the picture of Villa, the raid, General Pershing's punitive expedition, and the ensuing border drama: the perspective is primarily from American and British historical sources, like military documents and newspapers, and it's a limited one.
Too often, Welsome simply repeats the stereotypes from these sources:
Mexicans are 'treacherous,' while American soldiers are 'professional' and
'magnificent.' When General Hugh Scott
meets with General Alvaro Obregón in
A careful reader of this book might uncover the basic reason for Welsome's limitations: Pulitzer-Prize winning author Welsome does not know Spanish, or at least not very well. The first clues are grammatical mistakes in the Spanish used in The General and the Jaguar. Another clue is Welsome's thanking a colleague, in her Acknowledgements, for reviewing the Spanish portions of her text. Finally, in her Selected Bibliography, only two of 385 sources cited are in Spanish. Unfortunately, this language deficiency distorts the often captivating character portraits and scenes in her history book.
As readers we are left only with what could have been: a picture of Villa and his men through their own eyes, a perspective of what Villa really meant to the poor people of Chihuahua and beyond, a view of Pershing and his men not only from the military's point of view but also from the perspective of Mexicanos who saw American soldiers hunting for Villa in their country, and imagined, correctly as it turns out, that powerful figures in the American establishment contemplated taking over Mexico permanently. The General and the Jaguar is an easy read, and that in turn is its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness.
This book review appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of the Multicultural Review.