Narrating North American Borderlands

Thomas King, Howard F. Mosher and Jim Lynch

by Evelyn P. Mayer (Author)
©2015 Thesis 227 Pages


The study centers on the presentation of the North American borderlands in the works of Canadian Native writer Thomas King’s Truth & Bright Water (1999), American writer Howard Frank Mosher’s On Kingdom Mountain (2007), and American writer Jim Lynch’s Border Songs (2009). The three authors describe the peoples and places in the northeastern, middle and northwestern border regions of the USA and Canada. The novels address important border-oriented aspects such as indigeneity, the borderlands as historic territory and as utopian space, border crossing and transcendence, post-9/11 security issues, social interaction along the border, and gender specifics. The interpretation also examines the meaning of border imaginaries, border conceptualizations, and the theme of resistance and subversion.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Introduction: Border Contexts and the Notion of the Beyond
  • 1.1 Poetic Border Approaches
  • 1.1.1 “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border”
  • 1.1.2 “Mending Wall”
  • 1.1.3 Echoing the Poetic in Border Fiction: The “Un-National” and Walls
  • 1.2 Beyond, “Betwixt, and Between”
  • 1.2.1 Literary Analysis: The Confluence of Border and North American Studies
  • 1.2.2 Interdisciplinary Significance: Borders, Borderlands, and De/Bordering
  • 1.2.3 Procedure: Situating Canada-U.S. Border Fiction
  • 2 Theoretical Frame: At the Interface of Literatures, Cultures, and Borders
  • 2.1 Poetic Prisms: The Cultural and Literary Turns in Border Studies
  • 2.1.1 Border(ing) Studies, Border Theory, and Border Poetics
  • 2.1.2 The Canada-U.S. Border/lands
  • 2.1.3 Border Conceptualizations: Parallax and Paradox
  • 2.2 Border Prisms: The Spatial Turn in North American Literatures and Cultures
  • 2.2.1 Transnational American Studies
  • 2.2.2 Transnational Canadian Studies
  • 2.2.3 Native/Indigenous Studies
  • 2.3 Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries
  • 2.3.1 North American Studies
  • 2.3.2 The Notion of “Worlding”
  • 2.3.3 Comparative Border Studies
  • 2.3.4 Palimpsests: Remapping and Rewriting
  • 3 Thomas King’s Truth & Bright Water (1999): Native De/Bordering
  • 3.1 “Turtle Island”: Border Crossings and Transgressions
  • 3.1.1 Fluvial Boundary: The Stygian “Shield”
  • 3.1.2 Unfinished Bridge: Ambiguous Ampersand
  • 3.1.3 Cross-Border Communities: Truth & Bright Water
  • 3.1.4 Border Performance: State of the Art, Art of the State
  • 3.2 Diorama: Bordered Native-White Relations
  • 3.2.1 Pan-Tribalism: Haunting Past and “Happy Trails”
  • 3.2.2 Charades: Screening Stereotypes at the “Frontier” and Indian Days
  • 3.2.3 Cousins: Transcending the Liminal Abyss
  • 3.2.4 Quilt: Palimpsest and Map
  • 3.3 Turning the Tide: Monroe Swimmer’s “Survivance”
  • 3.3.1 Subversion: Monroe as Trickster
  • 3.3.2 Western Anthropology: Native Remains
  • 3.3.3 Colonial Legacy: Churches, Canvasses, and Carcasses
  • 3.4 Summary
  • 4 Howard Frank Mosher’s On Kingdom Mountain (2007): Borderlands as Utopia
  • 4.1 Kingdom Rules: The Duchess and Subversion Strategies
  • 4.1.1 “Lady Justice”: Humor, Naming, Historical and Literary Allusions
  • 4.1.2 Religious Rewriting: Reclaiming by Renaming and Reappropriating
  • 4.1.3 Dual Perspectives and “Second Sight”: Ghosts, Mysteries, and Myths
  • 4.2 “The Flying Lovebirds”: The Clash and the Reversal of Stereotypes
  • 4.2.1 The Duchess: Heiress of Kingdom Mountain and Memphremagog Abenaki
  • 4.2.2 The Aviator: Southern Mixed-Race “Stranger” “from Away”
  • 4.2.3 Community Borders: Representing Racial Relations in 1930 White Vermont
  • 4.3 Blurred Color Lines: Kingdom Mountain as Utopian In-Between Space
  • 4.3.1 Contested Geopolitics: The Canada-U.S. Border and Kingdom Mountain
  • 4.3.2 Disconnected “Connector”: Ecology vs. Economy, or Past vs. Present
  • 4.3.3 Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line: En Route from Civil War to Civil Rights
  • 4.4 Summary
  • 5 Jim Lynch’s Border Songs (2009): Power, Permeability, and Mobility
  • 5.1 Counterpoint: Natural Bird Songs, Constructed Border Songs
  • 5.1.1 “Big Bird”: Border Patrol Agent Brandon Vanderkool
  • 5.1.2 Budding Relationship: Agent Brandon vs. Smuggler Madeline
  • 5.1.3 In/Security and In/Sanity: American Norman vs. Canadian Wayne
  • 5.2 Borderlands Requiem: Security Paranoia in Cascadia
  • 5.2.1 “Nonchalant Border”: The Canada-U.S. Border (Ditch)
  • 5.2.2 Borderlands Transformations: Globalization and Securitization
  • 5.2.3 Border as Frontline: Farewell to a “Geographical Handshake”
  • 5.3 Border Echoes: Beyond Bodies, Buds, and Birds
  • 5.3.1 Liminal Limbo: “Line Dancing”
  • 5.3.2 Anthropomorphous Aviary: Arresting Art and Migrants
  • 5.3.3 Airborne: Brandon “Free as a Bird”
  • 5.4 Summary
  • 6 Conclusion
  • 7 Works Cited
  • 8 Index
  • Series Index


This work would not have been possible without the invaluable support of many people and thus it is my privilege to thank colleagues, friends, and family who have been part of this journey in one way or another over the years.

I am particularly indebted to my dissertation supervisor at the University of Mainz / FTSK Germersheim, Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Renate von Bardeleben, whose expertise and advice, unwavering support and longstanding commitment were instrumental for the dissertation process and completion. Furthermore, I would also like to warmly thank my second reviewer Apl. Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Sabina Matter-Seibel as well as the other committee members Prof. Dr. Dörte Andres, Prof. Dr. Ludwig Deringer, and Prof. Dr. Jutta Ernst for their strong support.

My profound gratitude extends to Prof. Victor Konrad, Ph.D. of Carleton University for having introduced me more deeply to the world of border studies and welcoming me both to Ottawa, ON and Bellingham, WA. The institutional support by Carleton University and Western Washington University was paramount in this context. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to be a visiting scholar at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies in Canada and at the Border Policy Research Institute in the United States – my sincere thanks to the host institutions for allowing me to conduct cross-border research right there in the Canada-U.S. borderlands.

I would also like to express my gratitude for the financial support regarding printing costs for the publication of my dissertation provided by the Freundeskreis FTSK Germersheim e.V. and the Association for Canadian Studies in German-speaking countries / Gesellschaft für Kanada-Studien e.V. (GKS).

Finally, I am most deeply grateful to my parents, Ursula and Helmut Mayer, and my brother Tobias Emanuel Mayer. They have encouraged me in numerous ways throughout the entire process of researching, writing, and publishing my dissertation. ← 7 | 8 → ← 8 | 9 →

1   Introduction: Border Contexts and the Notion of the Beyond

The history of Canada-U.S. bilateral relations is marked by shifts obvious in the way the border between the two nation-states has been managed, maintained, and negotiated. The Canada-U.S.1 border was originally imposed on indigenous lands by the colonial powers in North America2. Nonetheless, aside from some border skirmishes or disputes in the 19th century, the border was friendly, open, and permeable for the local border residents and other border crossers. This was to change at the beginning of the 21st century. Instead of the so-called “longest undefended border” the Canada-U.S. border has become a controlled and secured border. The “thickening” (Ackleson 336) of the Canada-U.S. border is in fact a practice of rebordering. Border permeability and border mobility are increasingly dependent on border management and policies such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)3. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in the change from open to closed border. In the wake of 9/11, suspicion regarding this loophole in the U.S. defense system against terrorists was directed at the Canada-U.S. border due to seemingly insufficient controls, patrols, and lax immigration laws. Borders continue to play a key role in our ever-shrinking world marked by the opposing forces of globalization and simultaneous regionalization. Processes of recurrent bordering or debordering, i.e. thickening or blurring of borders, unfold constantly. Paradoxically, borders are increasingly important in the formerly so-called “borderless world” (Ohmae). Borders project a sense of order in a world that is in flux. The international boundary between Canada and the United States has moved much more to the center of public attention and scholarly interest since the terrorist attacks ← 13 | 14 → of 9/11 and ensuing rebordering efforts. This border plays a geopolitical as well as a symbolic role embodying a line of demarcation between Canada and the United States. It functions as an internal as well as an external border between these two nation-states and as a necessary paradigm for Anglophone Canadian vs. American4 national identity construction.

Hence, it is not only a territorial expression of national sovereignty, but also a marker of cultural identities at the local, regional, and national levels. Indigenous identities, the struggle for sovereign rights, and land claims contribute to make the international border even more complex and contested. On the one hand indigenous peoples dismiss the Canada-U.S. border as superimposed on their ancestral homelands, yet on the other hand the nation-state is important as an interlocutor to reclaim land. Borders often defy intuitive logic, particularly if they are not geophysical borders such as mountain ranges or rivers. This arbitrariness leaves a person with a puzzled sense of why here is here and there is there, which also holds true for the Canada-U.S. border. The border is conceptualized in multiple ways, whether as “an interval of resonance” (McLuhan 73), a sieve, a semi/permeable membrane, a mirror of various kinds, a meeting place, in-between space, a (sanctuary) line, a wall, an “abyss” (Brown), a barrier, a fence, a “bridge” (Konrad and Nicol 29) or an open or closed gate. This study covers the full range of border expressions oscillating between the permeable and the non-permeable, the borderless air and the mended wall.

1.1    Poetic Border Approaches

By way of introduction two poems by William E. Stafford (1914–1993) and Robert Frost (1874–1963) are juxtaposed. Both U.S. poets are associated with border regions – Stafford with the Pacific Northwest and Frost with New England. Stafford’s poem “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” emphasizes the days of a seemingly open and inconsequential border for lawabiding citizens and legal border-crossers, whereas Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (published in North of Boston in 1914) foretells the rebordering unfolding along the Canada-U.S. border in a post-9/11 era. Both metaphors, “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” and “Mending Wall” are spatial terms. The first one resembles an oxymoron combining the terms “un-national” and ← 14 | 15 → “monument”. Usually, national and monument collocate and seem a natural semantic fit. This oxymoron underscores the ambivalent nature of the Canada-U.S. border. For Anglophone Canadians in particular this international boundary is more than a geographical division. It is a symbol of a distinct (Anglophone) Canadian national identity in contrast to the overwhelming presence of the United States. Indeed, for many Anglophone Canadians this un-national monument should rather be a mended wall. A similar predilection for a wall is also part of the U.S. psyche in terms of security insecurity. Eventually, only two options exist, either mending walls or mending bilateral relations. An open border is more perceptive to neighborly relations in a spirit of cooperation, whereas a wall that is actively maintained, even mended, signals isolationism and separation. Therefore, the concomitant message is one of division and distrust. Mending walls also foregrounds the experience that walls can deteriorate and even become obsolete over time. For a wall to persist maintenance is required. However, if the residents or neighbors deem other priorities more important than attending to a crumbling wall, this is a good sign for mended relations and thus mended walls are no longer called for. So the titles of both poems have the potential to subvert readers’ first impressions, one undermining the official nation-state discourse along the border and the other one drawing attention to the need for mending walls.

1.1.1    “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border”

This is the field where the battle did not happen,

where the unknown soldier did not die.

This is the field where grass joined hands,

where no monument stands,

and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,

unfolding their wings across the open.

No people killed — or were killed — on this ground

hallowed by neglect and an air so tame

that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

(William E. Stafford)

In Stafford’s poem every line is evocative such as “the air so tame.” This, however, is no longer the reality. Due to surveillance along the forty-ninth parallel the air is potentially threatening, creating a feeling of insecurity and ambiguity. Above all, the unpredictable conduct of the border guards and allegations of racial profiling emphasize premonitions border crossers have, in particular after the full implementation of WHTI in 2009. Color lines in supposedly color-blind ← 15 | 16 → and post-racial societies such as the United States or Canada remain. The prefix of “post” with all its echoes is subtly referred to in the poem’s title “At the Un-National Monument.” The question arises of how the prefix “post” is similar or different from the prefix “un.” The “post” presupposes a historical development, whereas the “un” simply negates the adjective “national” in the poem. The “unnational monument” is one that is not national, but a monument qualified by alternative notions.

If the border is perceived as “the un-national monument,” it could be a transnational, international, or even a post-national monument. A monument is usually erected by a nation-state or other group in order to commemorate or celebrate an event, a person, or a community. The goal is to construct history, memory, identity or “imagined communities” (Anderson), resembling a “metanarrative” (Lyotard) written in stone. The questions are who creates monuments, for which overt and covert reasons and what is the specific function of such a monument. In the poem’s title the Canada-U.S. border is described as both a monument and more importantly as an “un-national monument.” The border as a demarcation of the nation-state is undermined since the boundary is unnational. This monument, whose name is forgotten, enshrines and celebrates the notion of the beyond.

1.1.2    “Mending Wall”


Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
Grenzregionen Grenzliteratur historische Landschaft Indigenität
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 227 pp., 4 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Evelyn P. Mayer (Author)

Evelyn P. Mayer holds a MA in Conference Interpreting for English and French and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Mainz. She was a visiting scholar and researcher at Carleton University (Canada) and at the Border Policy Research Institute, Western Washington University (USA). She worked as a lecturer at the Universities of Mainz and Saarbrücken and currently teaches at Landshut.


Title: Narrating North American Borderlands
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232 pages