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Narrating North American Borderlands

Thomas King, Howard F. Mosher and Jim Lynch


Evelyn P. Mayer

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.
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5 Jim Lynch’s Border Songs (2009): Power, Permeability, and Mobility

5   Jim Lynch’s Border Songs (2009): Power, Permeability, and Mobility


British Columbia-Washington State Borderlands. (Focus and emphasis added).

Border Songs critically explores the struggle for power at and control of the United States border with Canada by featuring a most unusual Border Patrol agent. Protagonist Brandon Vanderkool’s striking physique, “six-eight” and “232 pounds of meat and bone stacked vertically beneath a lopsided smile” (4) signals that he literally embodies U.S. author Jim Lynch’s humorous and subversive approach to power relations and recent changes along the Line. Brandon personifies the complexity and paradox of the forty-ninth parallel as being invisible and simultaneously enforcing control: “The physical and social awkwardness of Vanderkool is an apt metaphor for the arbitrary and uneven application of American power: usually well-intentioned, often hapless, and always consequential” (Barta). The dyslexic agent recognizes things other people do not see, ← 157 | 158 → epitomized in his obsessive love for and extraordinary skill at birding. While birding on the job, the rookie agent Brandon makes numerous busts of “buds and bodies” (63) alike and thus quickly turns into a “shit magnet” (65) in the eyes of the other less successful and unmotivated senior agents, also known as “roadies,” “.Retired On Active Duty (25). Lynch highlights and critiques the current transformations in the Canada-U.S. borderlands regarding power, ensuing im/permeability, and im/mobility. His novel corresponds to “[b]y turns a post 9–11 elegy […] and a lampooning of the popular will and political pressures that have made it otherwise” (Barta). Lynch fictionalizes the “rebordering” (Rodney 384) and the “ ‘thicken[ing]’ with enhanced security” in close proximity “to the border in Whatcom County, WA, and the lower mainland of BC” (Konrad and Everitt 302). Correspondingly, cross-border relations are negatively impacted.

In an interview Lynch discloses that he conducted a lot of research for his novel as a journalist and then as a writer regarding the Border Patrol, the B.C. marijuana scene, and the local dairies along the border. Additionally, he read about the issues he addresses in his novel, ranging from birding, landscape art to dyslexia and autism (Interview Random House). Contributing to the author’s inspiration for the novel are the reduction of the border to a drainage ditch in the Lynden, Blaine, and White Rock area, news reports and the visible increase in Border Patrol forces (Interview Random House). The border between Canada and the United States in its western portion is considered a “mindbender,” and Lynch posits that “[t]he closer you look at the western half of the border, the sillier it gets. It’s supposed to follow the invisible 49th parallel, but the thin and imprecise boundary overgrows too fast for crews wielding chainsaws and weed whackers to maintain it” (Interview Random House). This underscores the border’s arbitrariness and the futility of protecting such a line by the U.S. Border Patrol, a situation already apparent in the history of the border creation along the 49th parallel.37 Lynch’s extrapolation of borders between the concrete and the abstract is encapsulated in the following statement: “My lasting impression of the [U.S.-] Canadian border is that it’s there to create an illusion of security. It feels arbitrary and, in many ways, nonsensical, which is probably an apt description for most of the borders we erect between each other and between generations, eras and places” (Interview Random House). Borders and geographical boundaries hence share many characteristics: They seem superfluous or annoying. ← 158 | 159 → However, at times borders and boundaries are needed to create a sense of order and to give orientation. The issue at stake is the disproportionate attention given to perceived security threats at the Canada-U.S. border.

Protagonist Brandon Vanderkool’s temporary land forms are inspired by “Andy Goldsworthy’s temporary landscape art” (Interview Random House). This artist is evoked in the words by the dean commenting on Brandon’s art towards the end of the novel: “‘His work with leaves,’ the dean continued, ‘shows he’s obviously been influenced by the great Andy Goldsworthy, but Mr. Vanderkool’s quilts look more like flags, susceptible to the slightest breeze’” (Lynch 290). Flags as markers of national identity and belonging are explicitly referenced in this statement. As Goldsworthy, Brandon Vanderkool sticks to the tenet: “Using nature as his canvas, the artist creates works of transcendent beauty” (Lubow). This beautiful transcendence is not fully appreciated by the community until the end of the novel when Brandon is finally accepted for who he is despite his peculiarities. His fleeting land art in addition to his paintings of illegal migrants testify to his talent and unique perspective.

Border Songs has elicited to date in addition to a number of mostly positive book reviews only limited scholarly research such as Albert Braz’s article “Reconstructing the Border: Jim Lynch and the Return of the Canada-US Boundary,” describing Lynch’s “satirical novel” (191) as “a major achievement in terms of literary representations of Canada-US life” (196). The lack of secondary sources represents a research gap this analysis of the novel seeks to address. Border Songs is an indicator of the significance of border concepts in contemporary fiction on the U.S. side of the international boundary between Canada and the United States. In the New York Times review “Outlaws’ Paradise” the selection of the northern border instead of the United States southern border as setting is stressed (Meyer 1) emphasizing the increasing importance of the Canada-U.S. border. Lynch sees himself as a “regional” writer as he is “driven by the setting” (Barber 2). Another review in the New York Times emphasizes the “strikingly eerie cover design by Chip Kidd, which features one of Walton Ford’s beautifully rendered images of nature gone awry” and “is emblematic of this book’s mixed message” (Maslin 1). This review is critical of the dual nature of Lynch’s novel comprising two sides “one ominous and one blithe. Neither the towering figure of Brandon nor that of the Peace Arch uniting Blaine, Wash., with Surrey, British Columbia, is tall enough to bridge that particular border” (Maslin 2).

Yet another book review sheds light on the stricter passport regulations and concurrent thickening of the international boundary: “Terrorists and tourists beware: ‘The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative’ sounds like an official ← 159 | 160 → vacation plan, but in typical congressional doublespeak it’s designed to slow you down” (Charles 1). The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was fully implemented including land borders in June 2009. Fear is the underlying cause for the rebordering along the Line: “This thickening of the world’s longest, once-undefended border is the latest sad, largely ineffectual annoyance spawned by our fear of drugs and foreigners” (Charles 1). In summary, the uniting effect of Lynch’s novel is evident: “In a sense, Lynch has written an anti-thriller thriller, not just a liberal critique of the war on terror but also a moving, optimistic rebuttal of our paranoia that encourages us to imagine, with Brandon, the possibility of flying over everything that divides us” (Charles 2). In the Pacific Northwest the reception of Border Songs is an enthusiastic one. Floyd McKay states that “Olympia writer Jim Lynch […] just could be the best new novelist in the region since David Guterson rolled out Snow Falling on Cedars in 1995” (1). Border Songs is described as a “towering Northwest tale” (Gwinn 1) infused with a sense of place embodied by the protagonist: “Brandon is as Northwest as moss on a stump” (Gwinn 2). In the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s the depth of Canadian insights is underscored: “A U.S. novelist well-versed in Canada reflects paranoia on both sides of the 49th parallel” (Bethune 1). Moreover, the author “is one of the rare Americans as interested as Canadians in the border […]” (Bethune 1). Geography and borders are at the heart of the novel: “Border Songs is primarily a novel of place. Lynch plays exquisitely with this theme of division and its consequences by exploring the boundaries within and between characters living in an actual border zone […]” (Bethune 2). The characters experience internal division in addition to the community borders in this transnational region.

The novel, set in the border towns of Blaine, Washington and White Rock, British Columbia in addition to the dairy farms in the Lynden area, centers on Brandon Vanderkool and his life, family, and work in the borderlands of Washington State and British Columbia. As a border guard, dairy farmer, son, community member, quirky and unique character he epitomizes the author’s quest to unsettle preconceived notions of the border, the recent changes along the Line and larger questions of power, paranoia, and security. Significant people for Brandon are his parents Norm and Jeanette, his love interest Madeline, his trainer Dionne and colleagues from the Border Patrol, and the mysterious masseuse and new community member Sophie. The plot focuses on key encounters and key scenes setting in relief the unreasonable acts of rebordering in this integrated cross-border region. Usually, the United States is dominant in North America and overshadows Canada. Bilateral relations are asymmetric. However, in this borderlands region, this is reversed: “Near the border in the Pacific Northwest, ← 160 | 161 → the asymmetry of the Canada-US relationship is actually reversed because Vancouver is closer to the border than Seattle, and the Canadian communities along the lower Fraser Valley are larger and growing more rapidly than communities in Whatcom County, WA” (Konrad and Everitt 302).

Lynch’s novel questions and reverses predetermined notions. The seemingly able Border Patrol agents trying to protect the border are either unwilling to do so or, conversely, are overzealous. However, the new atypical agent Brandon Vanderkool is unexpectedly highly successful as border agent. Where the senior agents look the other way or wait for reinforcements, Brandon makes arrests against his will. The rather shy and odd protagonist passionately and compulsively enjoys birding. While in fact looking for birds to boost his daily bird counts during his work as border agent, he accidentally discovers illegal immigrants, smugglers, and contraband. Lynch comically subverts the border securitization by means of irony, satire, and humor.

The Canada-U.S. border and de/bordering processes in the cross-border community are the catalysts for most of the action and interaction between the characters in the novel. The opening chapter sets the stage for the narration to unfold, encapsulated in the very first sentence: “Everyone remembered the night Brandon Vanderkool flew across the Crawfords’ snowfield and tackled the Prince and Princess of Nowhere” (3). The reader learns that the protagonist must be Brandon who “flew,” foreshadowing the birding metaphor, and Brandon personified as bird. Moreover, the mythical Prince and Princess of Nowhere must represent one driving force in the plot. The word “everyone” in this sentence signals the importance of community in the novel and the word “remembered” shows the significance of shared memories and experiences in a common region. Such a sense of borderland unity does not stop at borders. The story of Brandon and the regal couple of “Nowhere” “braided itself into memories along both sides of the border” (3). This myth underscores the significant role of the Canada-U.S. border setting. The community transcends the international boundary and is held together by the shared experience of the border.

The author uses the illegal couple, the Prince and Princess of Nowhere, as a trope. They stand out in the midst of all the other arrests and busts, because they are the first illegal migrants Brandon apprehends and they remain mysterious. The couple is also memorable because of the means of their apprehension: Brandon seizes them almost in flight during a blizzard. This legendary act becomes part of local folklore and storytelling and is intrinsically linked to Brandon. One of the other important characters, the mysterious masseuse Sophie, thinks about the Prince and Princess of Nowhere after the conversation has shifted to ← 161 | 162 → Brandon. She imagines how a person the migrants cannot understand lures the couple to cross the border: “Is this America? The air, soil and trees looked and smelled the same. Are we really in America? And then – YES! – to be in the land of liberty for all of three electrifying minutes before getting chased and crushed by the largest, most unusual agent in the history of the U.S. Border Patrol. Welcome to America, whoever you are” (42). Lynch, in one passage, addresses all the essential issues. He characterizes Brandon as a unique border agent, emphasizes yet again the arbitrary nature of geographical boundaries, criticizes human trafficking, and ultimately questions the notion that America is the “land of liberty”38 where the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Lazarus, The New Colossus, Inscription Statue of Liberty in Ogletree Jr. 755) are welcomed with open arms. Peter I. Rose posits with regard to Emma Lazarus’s poem: “We know the lines but we also know that, in 1921, that golden door was closed and, three years later, all but sealed” (Rose 12). Immigration had become a regulated and restricted issue.

5.1    Counterpoint: Natural Bird Songs, Constructed Border Songs

Edward Said’s contrapuntal conceptualization, based on musical traditions, is beneficial in the understanding of the juxtaposition of “border” and “songs” in the novel’s title. Instead of bird songs, as the reader might expect from the jacket painting “Falling Bough” (2008) by Walton Ford, Lynch’s novel is more aptly called Border Songs. The title stresses the contrast between bird songs in nature and the socially constructed, arbitrary border: “border songs” as a counterpoint to bird songs. The duality of the natural versus the artificial and constructed is present in the novel. Such a binary is eventually transcended in Border Songs. The protagonist symbolizes this quality as so-called “Big Bird.” In analogy, Said’s contrapuntal criticism, according to Jonathan Arac, exhibits a “loving” quality that “joins” (57) in contrast to more aggressive oppositional criticism (57). “Geographical notations” (Said, Culture and Imperialism in Mackenthun 331) matter to Said. This very concept is transposed to “border songs,” border representing the spatial and geographical, whereas notations are directly related to sheet music and songs. Thus the concepts of “geographical notations” and “counterpoint” are indeed pertinent for an analysis of Lynch’s novel. In fact, Border Songs refers ← 162 | 163 → to bird songs, as can be read in the following passage: “The robin sang first, even before the Moffats’ rooster, followed by eight other species politely waiting for their sunrise solos while Brandon sorted mating songs from territorial songs [...] until a song sparrow embarrassed them all with three different renditions of his manic ballad” (57). Lynch creates a sense of place not only by place descriptions, but by the birds Brandon hears.

There are numerous borders in the novel between the Border Patrol and the locals, between small dairies and “big boys,” between the newly rich and the hard-working longtime residents, between Americans and Canadians, between humans and animals. In addition, more boundaries appear between the sick and the healthy, the outsiders and insiders, the conformists and the non-conformists, the young and the old, between men and women, between parents and children, between local Border Patrol officers and the FBI, the local and the federal levels. These borders are transcended. The geographical boundary, in this region often not more than a drainage ditch, is also transcended, whether by floods, by birds or cigarette smoke moving beyond the border. Moreover, people cross the border, some legally and others illegally like the smugglers and illegal migrants. Several scenes address these border crossings and bordering processes. In this respect, the subplot featuring Norm and Wayne is crucial. Additionally, Wayne lectures the D.C. politicians touring the border and in so doing stresses the problematic and complex history and nature of the Canada-U.S. boundary.

The bordered existence of Americans and Canadians is transformed by the notion of the border as meeting place illustrated by the girl scout festival, the international bunco game at Sophie’s and the very cross-border community itself. Some characters are depicted as being above the border binaries, for instance Brandon and to a certain extent Sophie. They have ties to everyone, but will not belong to either camp. These two characters develop an unlikely bond. Sophie discovers in Brandon her main research project regarding her plan to write a local history. She initially accompanies him to his experiential art in nature, takes pictures, and films him, thus growing quite fond of him. Brandon is being domineered, sometimes overtly and at other times more subtly. Due to his peculiarities people underestimate him. When Brandon feels insecure, he calms himself with birding and phishing for birds. He feels at ease with animals and nature and the familiar surroundings soothe him.

Lynch uses the character of Sophie as the almost all-knowing yet mysterious presence, a wise voice hence the name Sophie. Her last name “Winslow” can be interpreted into “win slow(ly),” underscoring her ability to slowly but surely win the confidence of all the key players in that cross-border community. Sophie ← 163 | 164 → is well informed about all the events and the various residents. She is strategic in her networking and builds her position in the community with bunco39 games, parties and most importantly her massages. Sophie is the one having the overview about what is going on in the cross-border community, in part due to her “international bunco game” (39). She wants to receive information people do not automatically share, so she manipulates them in an unassuming manner by giving them the opportunity to play, drink, and gossip: “Sophie’s game plan was simple: Assemble the best-connected gossips she could find – bankers, nurses, pharmacists and others – and engage them in mindless gambling, then add liquor, and type it all up later” (39). Sophie is winning slowly but surely. The madness is like an epidemic and stirs people’s desire to become rich quickly. Sophie shares the story of Cranberry Chas about the money he found on his property and that he gave to the sheriff. The community dreams of quick cash in a feverish state according to Sophie’s observations: “[…] Sophie sensed a new fantasy emerging in which clumsy smugglers drop or even plant sacks of cash on your property. Every month she sensed more excitement, as if the ever-escalating smuggling made everybody feel younger” (40). Her neighbors want to tell her rumors, secrets, and share their experiences. She provides a link in the plot and integrates Brandon in the community. It is at her private art show that in the final chapter Madeline and Brandon are reunited.

Sophie’s role in the local community is mysterious, yet important. She fills a void; people do not care whether she is merely scrap-booking or does an oral history as she creates records of her interviews and photos: “What was actually true didn’t seem to matter. People lined up to gossip and gripe, to speculate and get rubbed, to confess their temptations and share their biggest worries” (93). Sophie talks to McAfferty while she massages him. He refers to Brandon as “[t]he shit magnet” (92) and shares that he thinks that Brandon is “as strange as he is large” (93). McAfferty underscores Brandon’s unique talent despite his being “as gullible as a twelve-year-old” (92): “Brandon just is. And his eyes are really, really wide open” (93). Through this fellow agent’s perspectives on Brandon the reader obtains new insights regarding Brandon, corroborating some of the characteristics mentioned by the other characters.

Jeanette adores her son. She supports him even though she realizes that he has a learning disability. She feeds his interest in birding and homeschools him. Her poor memory, which turns out to be an early form of Alzheimer’s, starts when ← 164 | 165 → Brandon is at the Border Patrol academy in the Southwest. She used to be the quiz champion and now forgets the easiest things. Nonetheless, she possesses emotional intelligence, empathy, and intuition even after the outbreak of her disease. Madeline recounts how Jeanette found the right words after her mother passed on. One key passage is the reversal of roles between Sophie Winslow and her interviewee. Usually Sophie interviews and records everyone and does not reveal anything about herself, but with Jeanette this method does not function any longer. Jeanette insists on learning more about Sophie and interviews her. This is the moment when Sophie opens up and tells about her personal life and discloses that she wants to write a community history and that she is not interested in men. She reveals this information to an Alzheimer’s patient, thus subverting the readers’ expectations. Sophie is particularly interested in Brandon and tells Jeanette that he is her true project.

Brandon is very fond of his mother. He can face reality about the miserable conditions of the dairy and the cows, but he is in a state of denial concerning his mother’s health. The contrary is true for Brandon’s father. Norm is in a state of denial regarding his cows and the dairy, but not regarding his wife’s health (129). On the very first page Lynch introduces Brandon’s hobby of counting birds and his expert knowledge. As an agent Brandon has to find people and things that do not “belong” (Lynch 3). The italicization captures the reader’s attention and underlines the significance of the notion of belonging. Belonging to and fitting in a community is thus an important motif in the novel amidst increasingly bordered neighborly relations. Brandon has an ingenious insight: “‘Know something?’ Brandon said. ‘I think the most interesting people I’ll meet these days will be criminals – or people about to become criminals’” (13). This last part clearly foreshadows Madeline’s path on the slippery slope and vicious circle of becoming involved in the illegal bud business. First she just wants to briefly participate in the bud growing and then she is sucked into the circle of money, excitement, and guilt, wanting to find the right moment to quit and never finding it to do so. Madeline is rightly alarmed by Brandon’s words on the cell phone when her battery has stopped. She realizes she turns more and more into an addict with unhealthy behavior: “This kept happening nowadays. She’d plan on one cocktail or half a joint, then fall into these time warps” (13). Madeline remembers her youth and how she used to be closer to Brandon at the age of fourteen or fifteen.

5.1.1    “Big Bird”: Border Patrol Agent Brandon Vanderkool

Initially, Brandon is marginalized in the community due to his peculiarities. He has one or two friends who are on his side such as Danny Crawford. However, ← 165 | 166 → the nicknames he is given are not flattering. He undergoes a dramatic change in the course of the plot when he becomes attractive as a successful agent. The good “fairy” Sophie, who is well-connected, introduces him into the popular incrowd. Eventually, as an up-and-coming artist, successful former agent, significant other of Madeline and local son, he is fully accepted. In the beginning, he is not a complete outsider, but alienated by societal divisions. Nonetheless, some people like basketball coaches, the doctor attesting his outstanding gift, and tall women find him intriguing. Exclusion thus gives way to inclusion.

Brandon personifies the tension between the local community and border securitization and border enforcement. The work as a Border Patrol agent is an ideal occupation for Brandon as it allows him to stay put at home and use his talent for observing and spotting things: “Brandon traversed the streets of his life now more than ever, getting paid, so it seemed, to do what he’d always loved doing, to look closely at everything over and over again. The repetition and familiarity suited him” (3–4). Brandon appreciates familiar surroundings and finds comfort in them in contrast to “the glassy canyons of Seattle or Vancouver” (4). As a Border Patrol agent he is in charge of guarding the border and enforcing the anti-smuggling and contraband legislation as well as immigration law. Customs, immigration, and rising paranoia are paramount concerns of federal policies, but do not include the right balance of local versus federal concerns and needs. Lynch characterizes Brandon directly and indirectly, implicitly and explicitly and is free to unsettle preconceived notions. In so doing, he comically subverts binaries related to the geographical boundary, questions societal norms, and the paradigm of inclusion and exclusion.

Brandon stands out in the local community because of his quirkiness: “People talked about Brandon the way they discussed earthquakes, eclipses and other phenomena. His size, his ‘art’ and the bizarre things he said and did had always generated chatter about Super Freak or Big Bird or whatever they were calling him at the time” (Lynch 11). Brandon being called “Big Bird” is partially condescending but almost in a positive way. He feels close to birds and he is a master in birding. On several occasions he feels like a bird and wants to fly away with a flock. Brandon, mildly autistic, is dyslexic yet very gifted in seeing things other people do not see. He spots differences, whether in the natural world or bird behavior or at his father’s dairy when a cow is ill. The special gift Brandon has is epitomized in his obsessive love and extraordinary skill at birding: “Brandon could identify birds a mile away by their size and flight and many of their voices by a single note. […] Most birders keep life lists of the species they’ve seen, and the more intense keep annual counts. Brandon kept day lists in his head, whether ← 166 | 167 → he intended to or not” (Lynch 6). The protagonist is in the world, but seemingly not of this world. His disability turns out to be his strength despite the obstacles he runs into in everyday life and has to overcome eventually. The twenty-three year old Brandon looks like an “unfinished sculpture,” as he is very tall and his physique and personality are marked by oddities. He loves birding to the point of obsession and also does bird paintings. The jacket of the hardcover edition of the novel features Walton Ford’s outstanding painting showing birds hanging on a branch and forming a human-like sculpture reminiscent of Brandon.

Birds transcend borders. Brandon “Big Bird” Vanderkool as a Border Patrol agent has the power to seize illegal immigrants and smugglers and crosses borders and boundaries constantly. The central character functions partly as a trickster or jester in the novel. Brandon has the liberty to critique and subvert the system and status quo. He is almost shape shifting as tricksters would due to his mental and metaphorical bird transformation. However, Brandon more closely resembles a jester speaking the truth in a comic relief manner, since he is perceived as innocent and in a certain way naïve. Nonetheless, for the illegal aliens and for the smugglers he captures, he embodies power similar to that which is associated with tricksters.

Brandon has a bridging function and transcends border binaries in multiple ways, first and foremost by the close association with birds. He is depicted as a border-transcending, freedom-loving “Big Bird,” and he defines himself by the same image. Lynch’s portrayal of Brandon’s kinship with animals, with cows and birds in particular, is an indirect criticism of human society and a community life in which everyone vies for the best and the brightest. However, what is deemed best and which qualities are deemed essential in the end is subject to change and lies in the eye of the beholder. By using an anti-hero such as Brandon the author succeeds in making the reader wonder what characteristics and qualities do matter in personal lives and professional careers. The questioning of commonly held beliefs does extend beyond the self and also encompasses the cross-border community and the drawing of borderlines. Binary thinking is made difficult by a fictional character like Brandon, because he does not neatly fit into established categories. Lynch characterizes him as someone who is part of the Border Patrol, yet simultaneously not really part of it. Paradoxically, he makes the highest number of arrests despite his being most reluctant to do so and caring much for the people he accidentally apprehends while birding. Through this fictional character, Lynch’s border concept, an upside-down border message dealing with arbitrariness, power relations, trust and fear in the local community, comes alive. ← 167 | 168 →

5.1.2    Budding Relationship: Agent Brandon vs. Smuggler Madeline

The novel’s characters are engaged in bordered relations, contrast being the most obvious characterization. The memorable cast is comprised of several protagonists, but the main character is Brandon Vanderkool. The story and plot ultimately revolve around him. The other figures, his father Norm(an), his mother Jeanette, the Canadian neighbor Professor Wayne Rousseau and his daughter Madeline, and the masseuse Sophie Winslow, also partly contribute to the reader’s understanding of the border. Wayne and Madeline Rousseau, in particular, feature prominently in this respect. Madeline actively undermines the Border Patrol’s authority by helping with marihuana grow ops and by smuggling bud across the bay from Canada into the United States. She becomes part of the Canadian drug growing business. Her father Wayne Rousseau smokes medical marihuana for his disease and is very vocal on the arbitrariness of the Canada-U.S. border and overall bilateral relations between Canada and the United States.

Brandon’s interaction and relationships with other characters help to reveal his personality and enhance the reader’s understanding of Lynch’s border-related message. The impact of the border is increasingly felt in community life as paranoia and ensuing security measures multiply. Life at the border is directly permeated by the line. Brandon develops from a rookie agent and inferior person in the community into the successful community member who has gained acceptance, respect, and admiration for his work as an agent and eventually even as an artist. Some characters only serve as background catalysts like Madeline’s late mother and especially Danny Crawford, although he is never present in person. Nonetheless, he is the common denominator between Brandon and Madeline as he functions as an interpreter for Brandon’s peculiarities in school and as Brandon’s personal role model and protective force.

Brandon is his parents’ long-awaited child. He is unique and is a “whopper C-section” (34), so that his parents initially think they are going to have twins. Norm is aware of the strong mother-child bond, but in Jeanette’s and Brandon’s case this special connection remains unchanged and proves detrimental for the parents’ relationship: “He came to see his son as an intruder sent to drive his wife crazy” (35). Brandon is mildly autistic as one doctor suggests and dyslexic. Learning about birds becomes Brandon’s deepest interest and his mother fosters that developing skill: “Jeanette fed his fascination as if both their lives depended on it” (35). Birding is an escape route and proves that Brandon is intelligent in different ways from other children. He knows Birds of Puget Sound by heart before he is ten years old. From Norm’s perspective the reader learns that Brandon has a “bird-rescue phase” and then a “bird-art binge” (35). Birding and birds ← 168 | 169 → provide a way of freedom, self-assertion, and a source of self-confidence for Brandon. Brandon has a great talent for dealing with animals in general. This holds true as well for cows because “for the most part Brandon was great with cows, particularly at noticing things Norm and most dairymen missed – the beginnings of swollen joints, split hooves or eye infections, and the potentially agitating shifts in lighting, texture, colors or sounds” (36). Brandon’s personality is awkward initially, but he undergoes a change throughout the story. He becomes more self-confident, rediscovers his life as a dairy farmer and eventually is able to start a relationship with Madeline.

Brandon’s father Norm is embarrassed by his son. He does not like Jeanette doting too much on Brandon. For Norm, Brandon behaves in a weird manner, and he dislikes interpreting Brandon’s words to outsiders. In order to make him grow up he sends Brandon away to join the Border Patrol. He is very surprised to see that Brandon excels in what he is doing, despite his peculiar interests in the arts and birding. It is Brandon, and not his father, who is the more mature and responsible dairy farmer and attends to the situation with the sick herd of cows. Norm has to admit that Brandon is outstanding with the cows, that he truly has a gift in dealing with animals and senses things others do not recognize. Still needing to recover from his stroke Norm is glad that Brandon takes over the dairy.

Brandon and his trainer Dionne are in a similar relationship to the one Madeline and Toby are engaged in, though not in a criminal milieu. Dionne manipulates Brandon and takes advantage of him. She might be truly attracted to him thanks to her admiration for the enormous success Brandon enjoys as a Border Patrol agent, but she uses him to fulfill her sexual desire. Gender relations are reversed. She as the single mom bosses her colleague around, though not in a mean way. Dionne is a good trainer seeing herself and Brandon in a different category from all the other roadies. Described as virile, she has to prove her mettle in the male-dominated world of the Border Patrol. Brandon tries to please Dionne and models her while doing his job, for instance during arrests.

Madeline’s important relationships encompass those with her father, her lover Toby, and most importantly, Brandon. Madeline is Wayne’s favorite daughter, but she is also the troublemaker. Due to his illness MS Wayne had to retire from the University of British Columbia. He uses marihuana as a medicine and indulges in alcohol. It is Madeline, though, who is the drug addict. Wayne helps her by giving her an alibi during the tunnel investigation and sends her to a rehab program. Madeline and her sister Nicole often disagree, because they are too different. Nicole is married, rich, and successful in her job and seems perfect but heartless. Madeline is the opposite, though not perfect, she has a big heart. ← 169 | 170 → Therefore Wayne prefers Madeline, since he feels unloved by his second daughter Nicole. Nevertheless, he tries to have a positive family gathering with his daughters and Nicole’s anesthetist husband. Madeline lives in an unbalanced relationship with Toby. She initially likes rather than fears him and tries to quit the drug business a couple of times, but to no avail. Toby exerts power over her due to her own internal flaw of chasing an adrenaline rush and money.

The key opposition in the novel forms the pair of U.S. border agent Brandon Vanderkool and Canadian smuggler Madeline Rousseau, who are neighbors, antagonists, and finally lovers. Their bond is marked by multiple borders. One boundary is geographical: She is a Canadian, possibly of French origin, whereas he is an American of Dutch descent. Lynch juxtaposes and contrasts them. Another border is the societal one between good and evil. She is the Canadian smuggler engaged in illicit actions; he is the American Border Patrol agent whose job it is to stop illegal activities. The evolving relationship and eventual love between Brandon and Madeline is characterized by misunderstandings, misperceptions, and their opposing roles in the local community. She is a cultivator in the bud business, whereas he works for the Border Patrol, precisely catching drug and contraband smugglers as well as illegal migrants trying to cross the border. This moral contrast between the two protagonists drives the story. The opposition reaches a climax when Brandon, though no longer part of the Border Patrol, discovers the border tunnel and sees the connection to the Damant house, in which Madeline lives at the time. He is torn between his obligation to report his observations to the Border Patrol and his inclination to warn Madeline. The conflict of whom to call first is resolved by Brandon calling Madeline first. This act discloses his strong feelings of friendship, loyalty, and budding love he harbors for her.

Despite their differences the border between them is fluid and transcended at times. Both share a love of nature and the natural world albeit in different domains. She loves plants and gardening, while he loves birds and the outdoors. They share problematic family backgrounds, sickness of their parents and having in fact only one parent. Madeline’s mother passed away and Brandon’s mother suffers from a disabling disease. Dreams, hopes, sorrows, and escapism mingle in their lives and the lives of their family members. Brandon and Madeline know each other from their childhood and as neighbors despite the international boundary which separates their families’ properties. They also have one friend in common, the often-quoted Danny Crawford, who, however, never personally appears in the novel.

Brandon is a year younger than Madeline and is attracted to her very early on. They lose touch, but Brandon, being part of the Border Patrol, tries to reconnect ← 170 | 171 → with her. Madeline, however, is in a manipulative relationship with Toby, who is heavily involved in the British Columbia (BC) bud business. He runs several huge grow-ops, expanding his empire steadily. Madeline is one of his growers, clippers, and later also smugglers. He is interested in her, but Madeline wonders what it is he sees in her, whether girlfriend or unequal business partner. During Madeline’s ever-increasing entanglement with the illegal Canadian drug business and with Toby, Brandon’s interest in her is intensified. He thinks Madeline is curious about what he does as a living, although she interrogates rather than converses with him. She is simply asking all the questions over lunch Toby told her to ask to obtain new information on how the Border Patrol operates. Toby does not ascribe the resurgence of drug busts to sheer luck or Brandon’s skill as a Border Patrol agent, but instead is convinced that there is a mole in the midst of his inner circle and in his business operations.

The relationship between Brandon and Madeline progresses as Madeline grows weary and even afraid of Toby, and Brandon is there for her in times of crises. Even though Madeline initially uses Brandon and comments after sleeping with Brandon that she “hit a new shameful low” she comes to like him more and more. He inadvertently saves her from Monty, the foot fetishist, through his call. Brandon also rescues her from Toby by showing her the pictures the Border Patrol received. After the incident with the Damant House tunnel and Brandon warning her, she is sent to rehab by her father. Afterwards, she works as a gardener again, wants to take college classes and promises Brandon’s father to show him how to sail his dream boat. Another emerging theme is madness. “Getting rich quick” becomes a widespread madness in addition to small personal instances of insanity or obsession. Wayne Rousseau calls Norm’s boat project a “monument to [his] ego” (22). Norm later on thinks about this comment and comes to the following conclusion: “A monument to his ego? No. To his incompetence? Probably. To his insanity? Definitely” (34).40

At Sophie’s casino grand opening art show featuring exclusively Brandon’s paintings and his forms in nature, Madeline is finally reunited with Brandon. Despite all their differences Madeline and Brandon complement each other. She is more down-to-earth, whereas he lives in his art world, enjoying time outdoors for birding, taking care of the dairy cows, his dogs and just living in the moment. In their relationship societal, ethical, and geopolitical borders are transcended. ← 171 | 172 → Brandon as a border agent is diametrically opposed to Madeline as a bud grower and smuggler yet their love has overcome divisions and all obstacles.

5.1.3    In/Security and In/Sanity: American Norman vs. Canadian Wayne

The desire for security on a national level is prevalent, particularly from the federal political perspective. However, local farmers also feel insecure when they hear about bomb threats and car bombers. Geopolitically the United States has entered an era of insecurity and paranoia ever since September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks have destroyed the general sense of peace, security, and serenity on American soil. This insecurity era has led to rebordering along the Canada-U.S. border and the border’s thickening with measures such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Security understood metaphorically refers to a sense of security on a psychological level in terms of family relations, health, and personal wealth. Norm is one prime example of this lacking sense of security. The same holds true for Norm’s wife, but also for Wayne, the Canadian former professor who is severely ill. Wayne is also worried about his daughter Madeline. The notion of love and loss and being content in every-day life is linked to the concepts of security versus insecurity.

Lynch plays with and frequently uses stereotypes. When Madeline goes to see her father, Lynch uses Canadiana to create a truly Canadian setting such as piano music by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, the Canadian current affairs magazine Maclean’s, and the hockey strike in Canada. Almost too explicit, the informed reader cannot miss these hints. Glenn Gould embodies the genius steeped in madness and insanity, something that Wayne Rousseau strives for with his series of reinventions. Occasionally, Lynch as a former journalist tries too hard to incorporate all the details that actually happened although he claims that everything is fictitious and similarities are only coincidental. Albert Braz points out: “Despite being works of fiction, they pay close attention to detail, both social and political, reflecting the author’s previous career as an award-winning journalist” (“Reconstructing” 194). Furthermore, Braz argues that “the genesis of Border Songs [is traceable] to his newspaper articles” (“Reconstructing” 194). One such article is “‘A Trip to ‘Vansterdam’” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 194).

According to Braz, Lynch “reverses some of the central myths about the two countries” (“Reconstructing”194). The novelist transcends border binaries insofar as he does not portray “the deferent north and the nonconformist south” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 194). Braz suggests that “[q]uite the contrary, the Canada he portrays in his novel is a country whose main economy is illicit and whose citizens appear to consume and grow drugs like marijuana with impunity” ← 172 | 173 → (“Reconstructing” 194). Furthermore, Lynch’s characters do not seem to exhibit the same attitudes as one might expect in a unified cross-border region, but abide by “a cultural divide” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 194): “Depending on which side of the line people happen to live, they see the world differently, a phenomenon that is never more evident than when it comes to drugs and world politics, notably terrorism” (Braz, “Reconstructing”195). Canadian and Vancouver-based author and artist Douglas Coupland elaborates on Vancouver’s drug business: “Vancouver’s pot is world renowned for its potency. [...] Much of this pot comes from grow-ops – indoor hydroponics plantations located in basements” (48). He further states that “[p]ot is among B.C.’s five largest industries” (Coupland 48). The alleged mindset in Vancouver regarding BC bud is casual in contrast to suspicions in terms of U.S. meddling: “Most Vancouverites basically don’t think pot’s the real issue and suspect – with whatever accurate level of paranoia – that pot crackdowns have something to do with the Kremlinological machinations of the White House rather than the plant itself” (Coupland 49).

Americans appear to be against pot growing and smuggling, whereas on the Canadian side it is a lucrative business. This leads Braz to conclude that “one of the unexpected ironies of Lynch’s novel is that Canadians turn out to be more American – at least in the sense of being more capitalist – than the Americans” (“Reconstructing” 196). This is a surprising conclusion and one that Canadians usually contest, as Canadians, particularly if Anglophone, like to emphasize their sovereignty and distinct national identity as non-American. The border is much more than an economic or legal divide, it is indeed a marker of difference in terms of identity construction and, agreeing with Braz, cultures and attitudes. Braz positively comments on Lynch’s novel regarding “its acute dissection of the growing resistance to the militarization of the international boundary,” but he criticizes “the Americanness of the text” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 197). He links this observation to the U.S.-centric approach within hemispheric studies and perceives a similar “US-centrism” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 197) in Lynch’s novel. The Canadian critic Braz states: “Notwithstanding Lynch’s focus on international relations along the western end of the British Columbia-Washington border, there is never much doubt which country is considered the dominant one. That is, which country assumes it has the right to affect the other without being much touched by it” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 197). Already former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau observed the truth of “[l]iving next to [the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant” (qtd. in Andreas 462). The U.S. influence and impact is unavoidable. Canadian border guards are now armed (Nicol 273) leading for example to conflicts with indigenous nations at ← 173 | 174 → Akwesasne. Braz’s observation reflects the reality in bilateral, highly asymmetric, relations between Canada and the United States. For Braz Lynch, a U.S. writer based in Washington State, consequently exhibits mostly “a US perspective, which normally would be fine,” but “clashes with critical elements in the novel” (Braz, “Reconstructing” 198). Illegal activities are of Canadian origin, excessive business is on the Canadian side (Braz, “Reconstructing” 198) and Canadian characters are portrayed in a negative way (Braz, “Reconstructing” 199).

In Border Songs the neighborly arguments and encounters between Norm and Wayne showcase the contrasting worldviews of U.S. versus Canadian perspectives. They are in a stand-off and hold each other personally accountable for the ostensible shortcomings of their nation-states. Lynch juxtaposes the roles of politicians from elsewhere with the local Border Patrol chief and Wayne comes into the equation in a jester-like manner. Wayne is clown-like: “The most amusingly ugly of Lynch’s many ugly Canadians is a magnificent clown, dead true to type, and ultimately sympathetic” (Barber 1). Wayne speaks his mind to Norm, neighbors and politicians alike.

Norm, as his telling name indicates, longs for normalcy. He is surrounded by illness, lack of money, his unique and special son and a difficult neighbor. Norm and Wayne confront one another with their deepest fears and insecurities. Both embody the stereotypical differences of what it means to be American and Canadian and personify the arbitrariness of the border. They are each other’s closest neighbors despite the border, a drainage ditch, between them. It is very easy to engage in a heated debate across the ditch and that is Wayne’s favorite activity except for reinventing things already invented. Wayne blames Norm for everything going wrong in the United States. Regarding the American drug czar criticizing Canadian drug policy he declares that “You act like our land is your land” (19). This reproach resonates with the common Canadian belief that the United States, if not physically, then through the back door of business and cultural products, imperialistically wants to claim Canada. From Norm’s perspective Wayne could have moved elsewhere upon retirement. Wayne openly criticizes American foreign policy and flies the Cuban and Iranian flags on Sunday to make a statement (19). Moreover, he likes to add insult to injury and asks Norm about all his problems, such as his wife’s health, his cows, his sailboat, and his son Brandon (20–23). Norm wants to escape from these conversations, but he stays put “standing there breathing illegal secondhand smoke wafting across a ditch he hadn’t crossed since Customs spotted an old DUI on his record and sent him back” (20). He decided not to enter Canada again despite his memories of childhood and youth which he spent there playing and helping out in the fields. ← 174 | 175 →

Regarding his wife he treasures the memory of trips to Abbotsford “to get Jeanette her chocolate éclair, which she’d hold up like a half-eaten passport to get them waved back through” (20). This shows the extent to which the border culture in the local community is engrained and how significant the changes along the border and in local ownership have been in the fictional as well as the real worlds. It is a very strong metaphor to have a foodstuff, symbolizing community and shared food culture, as a sign of identification and proof of citizenship instead of post 9/11 rebordering measures. Community and cultural ties have been superseded by law enforcement, negativity, and suspicion at the border. Now passports are paramount as proof of identity and citizenship representing the categories in which every prospective border traveler is confined. This classification leads to unwanted and desired border crossers depending on the perception of socio-economic status, class, race, and nationality.

In his novel, Lynch stereotypically yet ironically lets Canadian protagonist Wayne defend Cannabis and the medical use of it against the American protagonist Norm’s objections. The Canadian displays an air of superiority in his Anti-Americanism. Wayne states that “Cannabis isn’t some wicked invention by socialists or Muslims or gays […]” (21). The good Canadian is pitted against the bad American. This portrayal is believable, but at the same time very conventional. Lynch is slightly too much on the journalistic side trying to include every stereotype such as the Iranian and Cuban flags: “Lynch trots out stock American and Canadian figures that stand in relief to his idiosyncratic central character. Jingoistic, individualist Americans and self-righteous, pot-smoking Canadians frequently sling jibes at one another across a border represented by the ditch between their backyards” (Barta 1). However, comparative literature scholar Braz from the University of Alberta, Canada, criticizes Jim Lynch’s “Americanness” (Braz 199) that ostensibly permeates Border Songs. Despite favorable criticism regarding Lynch’s so-called “discovery of Canada” (Braz 196), negative aspects come to the fore in Braz’s analysis of the novel. Considering Braz’s Canadianness, the third-country reader of his article recognizes the classic Canadian stance with regard to the United States. Braz posits that Lynch seems to convey the sense that the Canadian characters in Border Songs always need the United States as a reference point in order to construct Canadian identity. Moreover, he also critiques the predominantly negative portrayal of Canadian figures as compared to the American figures. It becomes obvious that the very things Braz objects to in Lynch’s subject position are his own blind spots as a Canadian. First of all, it remains to be seen whether Lynch is really stuck in what Braz labels Lynch’s Americanness and secondly Braz himself is stuck in his Canadian stance. In an ← 175 | 176 → interview Lynch explains his underlying motives: “I don’t mean to characterize Canadians as marijuana smugglers across the board” (Barber).

Discussions regarding the literary representation of Canadian identity reflect the overall stage of Canada as a former dominion of the United Kingdom and the sense of insecurity in terms of statehood and identity due to the proximity to the overwhelming presence of the United States. This historically founded sense of identity insecurity as opposed to the recent security paranoia in the United States is obvious in the Harper government’s rebranding efforts along the lines of the monarchy, history, and the military. The Canada-U.S. border still serves as a valid marker of identification for Canadians as well as the commemorations of the War of 1812, the monarchy and the military. Canadians’ sense of self and Canadian national identity constructions are based on the premise of being different from the United States and of not being American. 2017 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. At first glance, affirmative identity constructions are proposed by the foci on history, the military and the monarchy, yet the foundation of not being American is still underlying. Canada might rather celebrate its identity as a Northern, aboriginal, diverse and bilingual if not multilingual country in its own right.

Norm realizes the numerous problems he has: “The big picture? How big do you really wanna go? His wife is losing her mind. His son was in danger. A third of his herd was too sick to milk. And his sailboat was a pipe dream” (22–23). He is almost in despair and would welcome losing his mind as a form of escapism. According to Michel Foucault, “[T]he ship is the heterotopia par excellence” (Foucault and Miskowiec 27). Foucault further postulates that “[i]n civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates” (Foucault and Miskowiec 27). For Norm the boat is his dream. In a sense the reasons for the espionage unfolding in the local community is linked to many community members who have abandoned their dreams and hopes along with their sense of adventure and wonder. Eventually, Norm’s stubborn clinging to his dream world, the boat, preserves his sanity in the midst of all the difficulties he experiences. A boat is also described in Foucault’s words as “a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea […]” (Foucault and Miskowiec 27). This special quality of the boat as a heterotopia is taletelling the reader about Norm’s subconscious longing for this “other space,” representing a “space of illusion” (Foucault and Miskowiec 27). Illusions make life bearable for Norm and transcend the confines of norm and normal. ← 176 | 177 →

5.2    Borderlands Requiem: Security Paranoia in Cascadia

In the United States widespread concern with homeland security is prevalent. This theme is the “backdrop” of Border Songs. Lee Rodney succinctly captures the main conflict: “Borderlands Versus Homelands” (385). Borderlands entail a sense of cross-border unity and borderlands identity, whereas the notion of homeland is more an insular and isolationist view of the nation-state. The space of insecurity that the border has become is in opposition to a concept of “a borderlands region, an overlapping set of territories with complex cultural spaces” (Rodney 385). Rodney cites Kaplan regarding the “semantic shift” to “homeland” (386). Amy Kaplan examines “the relationship between language and space, how words map, blur, and reconstruct the conceptual, affective, and symbolic borders between spheres once thought of as distinctly separate – as either national or international, domestic or foreign, ‘at home’ or ‘abroad’” (82). The creation of the Department of Homeland Security signifies the institutionalization of that fear of a possible terrorist threat. The threat seems real. The danger lies in a one-border approach for the very different borders of the United States, on the one hand between the United States and Mexico and on the other between the U.S. and Canada.

Border concepts are complicated by the various terms border, (border)line, boundary and frontier. These terms are not mutually exchangeable. They are distinct depending on context and use. They vary or evolve over time: “Frontiers, borderlands, regions, and the border itself have been defined differently over time and across national and international boundaries (Jameson and Mouat 188). “Frontier” is inextricably linked to Frederick Jackson Turner’s definition and his famous “frontier thesis” (Jameson and Mouat 189–90) in the United States context and history. In terms of identity construction there are differences between Canada and the United States. Jameson and Mouat argue: “The forty-ninth parallel has had a considerable impact on the Canadian imagination, dividing what is and is not Canadian. The border in Canadian history functions much as the frontier did in Turner’s, as the line that divides U.S. cultural and economic savagery from Canadian civilization” (189). Consequently, bordering and othering are needed in order to develop a sense of self and national identity.

The term homeland is linked to the concept of frontier and by extension to constructions of U.S. national identity and expression of national self-hood in terms of history, politics, and security. Kaplan posits that the new rhetoric of U.S. “homeland” is in stark contrast to the usual mobility-related conceptualizations of the United States:

Though American national identity has always been linked to geography, […] these meanings, bounded and self-enclosed, represent a departure from traditional images of ← 177 | 178 → American nationhood as boundless and mobile. […] A nation of immigrants, a melting pot, the western frontier, manifest destiny, a classless society – all involve metaphors of spatial mobility rather than the spatial fixedness and rootedness that homeland implies. (86)

Homeland entails “notions of racial and ethnic homogeneity” (Kaplan 86). For Rodney homeland includes “nostalgia” and “defensiveness” (386). She states that “[…] the discourse of security serves to mask profound insecurity in North American relations and the introduction of resurgent nationalisms that have been played out around the site of the border” (Rodney 386).

In addition, Victor Turner’s idea of the “liminoid” (491) is a useful concept. Liminoid is related to liminal and can be called “liminal-like” (Turner 491). A novel would be a “liminoid genre” (Turner 491–92). Turner describes the difference between liminoid and liminal in the following manner: “Liminoid phenomena, unlike liminal phenomena, tend to develop apart from central political and economic processes, along the margins, in the interstices, on the interfaces of central and servicing institutions – they are plural, fragmentary […] and often experimental in character” (Turner 492). He further declares: “Liminoid phenomena, unlike liminal, do not so much invert as subvert quotidian and prestigious structures and symbols” (Turner 493). Subversion aside from inversion is at the heart of Border Songs. Consequently, Lynch’s novel is liminoid and not only liminal, even though both terms, liminal and liminoid, are characteristics of border fiction.

5.2.1    “Nonchalant Border:” The Canada-U.S. Border (Ditch)

The context is of paramount importance in the conception of Lynch’s novel and in making the border message (that borders are arbitrary and rebordering is a U.S. overreaction) central. The historical context referencing the arbitrary location and drawing of the political boundary is evoked in former Canadian professor Wayne’s rant and jester-like soliloquy right at the Canada-U.S. border in front of the visiting political elite. The northern border is regarded as a problem, and politicians diagnose similar problems in the North as in the South of the U.S.: “Congressmen were demanding more studies and greater investments in security” (91). The National Guard is offered and Southern minutemen want to help out in the North along the Canada-U.S. border (91). The political and the cultural differences in the perception of the border become evident in the critique of the massive and large-scale undiscriminating rebordering and security efforts in the wake of perceived terrorism, smuggling and overall security threats on the part of the United States. Lynch’s novel was launched in a timely manner ← 178 | 179 → just prior to the full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the summer of 2009.41

The twofold nature of the border including and excluding as well as the in-between state of belonging neither here nor there is vividly rendered in the novel. Lynch realistically portrays the border and shows a blurred boundary in geography and by extension a blurring in his characters’ imagination. This tangible and full-fledged depiction of the geographical border and the overall setting in the valley between the Pacific and Mount Baker leads to the reader’s identification with and adoption of Lynch’s portrayal of the cross-border community. The natural landmarks matter on both sides of the international Line: “Mount Baker, an American Fuji, the most northerly of the necklace of American coastal volcanoes” (Coupland 91). Coupland further states:

Mount Baker is important to the Vancouver psyche in that it stands there, huge, record-breaking and serene, shooting off just enough steam every few years to let us know that if it really wanted to, it could bury us. It’s a metaphor for the United States: seductive but distant, powerful and at least temporarily benign. (91)

Very detailed metaphors convey a sense of “Ecotopia” and Cascadian spirituality: “The highway followed the foamy Nooksack up through cathedrals of cedars and birch and young hemlock as graceful as ballerinas” (58). Lynch addresses almost all senses, when he writes about the “stench” and the “heat” in the valley or of “Baker’s cool canopy into the low, blinding valley” (58). The olfactory senses, sight and emotions are addressed, as well as the audio-visual perception when he recognizes “the one-note song of the varied thrush” (58). Place names are used explicitly such as Semiahmoo Bay, Sumas River, Mount Baker, Nooksack (58–60). He also mentions the characteristic West Coast plant “salal42” (61).

Key settings are introduced through the eyes of Brandon, who literally cruises the streets of his life. The reader experiences “these farmlands and humble towns pinned between the mountains and the inland sea along the top of Washington State” (4). Brandon describes how the valley is transformed by commercialization: “More retirement ranches were popping up […]. Closer to Lynden, new cul-de-sacs sprouted alongside the bulldozed moonscape of the future Paradise Links […]. Closer to the border, bushy raspberry rows now doubled as potential smuggling lanes and the future casino’s steel girders lunged toward the sky” (101). The valley changes as gentrification unfolds, resulting in the lack of spontaneous ← 179 | 180 → encounters between Americans and Canadians, a development Brandon much regrets especially when he is thinking about Madeline Rousseau (6). The reader follows Brandon in his car driving around past homes and sharing his thoughts about the people and the valley with the readers. Later on he explains that “[t]he people were changing on him too” (101). With his success as Border Patrol agent he receives more attention from the people around him, even his parents. However, for Brandon, being at the center of everyone’s interest, “jammed his circuits” (101). Lynch uses the character Dirk Hoffman as a self-righteous conservative citizen who has a reader-board comment on everything and expresses his tabloid-like views such as: “CANADA EXPORTS DRUGS AND TERROR” (92). This character is a caricature of the freedom-of-speech-loving right-wing American. Lynch critically views his American compatriots and his home country. His presentation confirms that people in this cross-border region have more in common with each other than with politics made in the political centers.

Border Patrol chief Tony Patera has some congressmen visit, and they inspect the border. He gives “his spiel,” a monologue, explaining security in his sector and the kind of problems the agents are fighting against in their job. He paints a bleak picture of border security along the Canada-U.S. border and complains about the Canadian counterparts: “Unfortunately, the Mounties don’t have the manpower and Canadian courts don’t have the will to do much about it” (120). Patera explains the different ways smugglers get the drugs into the United States:

With ninety percent of their market down here, of course they get it across in every way imaginable. If they don’t want to risk sneaking it through the port of entry, they jump this ditch here or run it through raspberries over there or put a car on each side, make sure we’re not around, then throw some hockey bags over, drive off and poof – gone before we can respond. Plus, they can paddle across the bay in kayaks, or use helicopters, snowmobiles and remote-controlled planes. (121)

One of the congressmen suggests “putting in concrete barriers like we have in front of the Capitol” (121). He is from Tennessee and “later called the Canadian border the Mexican problem squared” (121). The narrator seems very critical of the rebordering efforts as evident in the comments on Patera: “[…] [H]e evangelized about other surveillance options, including tethered blimps and unmanned drones and even a virtual fence made up of ground-based radars that could all serve as ‘force multipliers’” (122). Patera links the war on terror and the war on drugs. He calls the Canada-U.S. border “the border of choice for almost anybody trying to sneak into our country” and emphasizes that the Border Patrol “increasingly catch[es] Mexicans flying to Vancouver on Japan Airlines and walking across here because it’s so much safer” (122). ← 180 | 181 →

During Patera’s border tour and lecture for the congressmen, Wayne shows up in the manner of the movie star, John Wayne, to whom Lynch links Wayne by his first name. The professor’s last name is reminiscent of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Overall, it is a fitting name since the professor is a philosopher, but in the way of a cowboy. Wayne Rousseau finally emerges as a sort of hero. He tells the gathered congressmen that a surveying error has occurred and that the border is in fact elsewhere. Wayne voices the criticism found in the newspapers by pointing out where and how America has gone wrong. He does so in an ironic and self-confident manner: “As the interim spokesman for the great nation of Canada, I ask you to please not let my good friend Chief Patera persuade you that you need to throw more agents at this border or pay for intrusive cameras or whatever other placebos he’s hawking” (122). Former UBC political science professor Wayne Rousseau is smoking while talking to the politicians and invites them to smoke with him.

One “stout Michigan congresswoman” confronts Wayne on his claim that Jefferson and Washington grew marihuana. The other congressmen are looking forward to this exchange: “Miss Piss ’n’ Vinegar sparring with one of Canada’s pothead intellectuals” (123). In this encounter Wayne paraphrases a Mark Twain quote43 and is very sarcastic: “‘Didn’t you people learn anything from Prohibition? Oh, that’s right. I forgot superpowers don’t study history. You spread freedom. [...] ‘Americans have freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and the prudence to never use either’” (123). The Michigan congresswoman retorts that she “personally [doesn’t] find your country’s peculiar brand of socialist monarchism worth emulating” (124). Wayne points out when the group leaves that “[they]’ve been standing in Canada illegally this entire time anyway” (124). He can prove by the help of GPS that the border marker is not located on the forty-ninth parallel (124). Additionally, Wayne informs the politicians that the Canada-U.S. border is

an arbitrary line agreed upon in 1846 by politicians in London and Washington, D.C., and how finding and defining the 49th parallel soon turned into a comic competition. [...] Biased sextant readings resulted in multiple-choice borders, with incoming settlers discovering an American, a Canadian and a compromise in-between. In the early 1900s, intrepid border teams headed out on a Monty Python-like quest to find the original rock piles and establish permanent monuments along a still imprecise line that nature erases every few years anyway. (124) ← 181 | 182 →

The former professor describes it as “an ongoing comedy” that the congressmen are part of in their efforts to find out how to increase security along “this nonsensical border [they] know so little about” (125). The superimposed outside views become apparent as do power games and political will at the expense of local expertise and insights.

5.2.2    Borderlands Transformations: Globalization and Securitization

The Canada-U.S. border in the Pacific Northwest cannot withstand the forces of globalization and securitization played out on a larger scale. Due to the presence of fewer dairy farms, more agri-business, and rich people building fancy homes the formerly rural valley is transformed. The locals are relegated to merely watching their lives and livelihoods deteriorate. This underlines how times have changed in the community and have given way to distrust and anonymity as compared to “[…] when the ditch was just a ditch, the Vanderkools just peculiar American neighbors and Brandon just an oversized kid […]” (13). A feeling of nostalgia for the good old times sets in when the unfolding transformation is observed and experienced first-hand.

Many scenes delineate the community borders between the old and the new lifestyles, between old-timers and longtime local residents on the one hand and new and rich urban residents relocating to this rural neighborhood on the other. Brandon’s father Norm, a stubborn old-time dairy farmer, feels sorry for himself, since he foregoes the good fortune other people seem to have. He does not have abundant riches, but only plenty of worries concerning his wife and son and also his cows. His anger is directed at the divide between the hard-working oldtimers and the fast money the newcomers make, he harbors a “growing sense of an upside-down economy. While he squeezed a living from sickly cows, Canadians made millions selling drugs and Seattle kids earned fortunes in Internet and wireless worlds Norm didn’t need or understand” (32). Norm sees himself and other small dairy farmers in opposition to the “big boys” (32–33) who are only in the dairy business for profit and do not care much about their cows. Divisions deepen between small and big dairy farmers, the longstanding locals and the newcomers, often rich and without any expertise regarding dairy farming. This development upsets Norm tremendously: “But what pissed Norm off even more than dairies turning into berry farms was dairies turning into cul-de-sacs or toy ranches for the rich. And worst of all was when the rich left the barns and silos standing out of some do-gooder nostalgia for an America they never knew” (33). Old times are changing fast due to economic reasons. With the rebordering effort and increasing security the little that is left of an old time local ← 182 | 183 → border community is impacted negatively. The neighborhood feeling is replaced by distrust and greed for money. Everyone wants to get his or her share of the booming economy.

Reminiscent of the biblical flood Lynch describes the natural forces unleashed after Brandon’s success as Border Patrol agent. Lynch thus adds to the ominous aftermath of the bust “The entire border, after closing for twenty-seven hours, remained in paranoid mode” (89). Lynch’s description of the paranoia echoes the developments along the border immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The border shut down and “southbound drivers were interrogated as if all thirty million Canadians had suddenly become suspects” (89). In the post-9/11 security-driven era the 9/11 myth persisted, U.S. sources claiming that the terrorists entered the United States via loopholes in the border enforcement and immigration system in Canada.

As a former journalist Lynch cannot deny his apprenticeship and includes current events and recent changes along the Canada-U.S. border in the decade after 9/11. He chronicles in a fictionalized manner the thickening of the Canada-U.S. border particularly in the area he calls his home, the Pacific Northwest. Despite claims to the contrary in the disclaimer at the beginning of the novel, the informed reader or border resident is able to connect actual events and developments with the fictionalized events in Border Songs. Lynch also comments on the role of the media by stating in his novel that “[t]he few juicy particulars were repeated endlessly” (90). The situation along the border escalates again, when in Vermont’s Kingdom County illegal border crossers are caught and for the Americans the “world’s longest undefended border” becomes a sort of “government gaffe” (91). In the novel, the media are in fact depicted as complicit by adding to the feeling of paranoia: “Television crews fanned out to illustrate just how unguarded these 4,200 miles actually were, and border seemed like too big a noun for what they found” (91). The media keep the story alive and want to outdo competitors “casting the western end of the border as a farmer’s, retiree’s and outlaw’s paradise, or dredging up its rum-running days, and its historical ebb and flow of legal and illegal commerce” (91). Full-blown paranoia ensues and Canada is blamed for drugs and terrorists. The narrator describes Canadians’ alarming sense of insecurity when the U.S. president “warned that any country housing ‘evildoers’ would be treated as an enemy” (92). This reflects the words of President George W. Bush referring to the “axis of evil.” ← 183 | 184 →

5.2.3    Border as Frontline: Farewell to a “Geographical Handshake”

Lynch sets the stage for his novel with Brandon’s arrest of “the Prince and Princess of Nowhere” (3). Brandon stopping the illegal migrants becomes a story told numerous times by all the local residents. Only later this event is categorized as the start of a major change in the community: “As the story evolved it was ultimately seen as the beginning of a madness and temptation that blew through the valley, but that perspective came later” (8). Lynch also begins the second and third part of his novel with border and law enforcement crises highlighting the importance of security and paranoia for the plot set on the Canada-U.S. border in the borderlands of British Columbia and Washington.

Norm goes to the Border Patrol to pick up his son after the border bust with the Pontiac Sunbird. He sees the Border Patrol from a different perspective, the Border Patrol buildings seeming “bunkerlike” (79). These buildings all look the same, making it impossible for him to find an entrance. Openness and transparency are not a main priority. The metaphor of warfare emerges. Concerned about Brandon, Norm asks himself upon seeing the razor wire all around: “The patrol had always looked like glorified security work, but now he felt as if he’d sent his son to the front lines of a war he hadn’t realized was going on in his own neighborhood” (79). Norm shows his love for his son hidden in his deep concern for him. The border is not just a simple line but by now has become a frontline. When Norm finds Brandon, he is surprised that Brandon is so big. Brandon is somewhat disoriented and very white, resembling “an enormous mime” (82).

Part two begins where the first part of the novel ends. Lynch paints a stark and bleak picture after Brandon’s success. The military metaphors are upheld throughout. The rain does not stop, but it rains for ten days straight. First it rains “mercifully,” then “violently, punishing the land” (89). The “Pacific rain factory” does not stop with repercussions for locals: “The relentless downpour added to the sense of siege by trapping people indoors, but there was no getting away from it” (89). Using this vocabulary adds to the newspaper-like style and tone of this passage and conveys the insecurity and paranoia of the locals and officials. The Border Patrol automatically assumes that travelers must be suspect: “Commuters with NEXUS passes were no longer waved through […]” (89). This downpour is reminiscent of the Great Flood in the Bible. The narrator mentions Noah’s ark in connection with Brandon’s sense of wonder and awe. Regarding the fauna Brandon compares the animals to “some Noah’s Ark spoof” (59). The rain continues and everything is damp and “water overflowed on both sides of ← 184 | 185 → the ditch, swamping stretches of Boundary and Zero where BPs and Mounties hydroplaned along in record numbers, squinting at a landscape blurred beyond recognition” (89). Lynch describes how the inspection process works and how much contraband the agents found including weapons, eagle feathers, and fake IDs (89). The agents get carried away with their inspections and grill seniors, children and profile racially, since “Arabs were strip-searched, especially if they had accents” (89). Lynch criticizes this exaggeration and shows the implications for the locals residing near the border, the border crossers, and the agents.

The Canada-U.S. border is portrayed as a ditch, arbitrary line and delineation between different jurisdictions and value systems in terms of drug consumption and migration. There is war in the Peace Arch Park comprising a binational area. Lynch juxtaposes war and peace and in so doing exposes the inherent irony in border paranoia and security fears taken too far. The border “has become the location of fear” (Rodney 387). However, this geopolitical line amounts to a “geographical handshake” becoming a concrete handshake during the “Hands Across the Border” festival in Peace Arch Park. A festival is a temporary event. Foucault distinguishes “heterotopias” and “heterochronies.” There are two types of “heterochonies,” one in which time is expanded and one linked “to time in its most fleeting, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival” (Foucault and Miskowiec 26). The lingering spirit of “Ecotopia” (Callenbach) permeates the narrative. The cross-border region of Cascadia, represented by the Salish Sea or the Peace Arch Park, manifests itself in Lynch’s novel. The converging factors of life on the line are stressed, even though the narrative’s focus is centered only on one border agent, Brandon, who enforces the power of the nation-state at the geopolitical boundary. The novel’s main protagonist embodies a cross-border and Northwestern identity. In Cascadia, Victor Konrad and John Everitt find that “enhanced security has sharpened national identities on both sides of the border and narrowed the space for expressions of a transnational and regional borderlands identity” (303). Regarding creative and imagined constructions of identities in the Pacific Northwest they refer to Lynch’s novel: “‘Borderlands’ literature and art flourish in the Pacific Northwest, and are exemplified in Jim Lynch’s novel Border Songs (2009), in which protagonist and security officer Brandon Vanderkool grapples with who and where he is in the border zone” (Konrad and Everitt 303). The Peace Arch Park, featured prominently, is a symbol of mutual understanding and straddles the international boundary. There, people can walk from the United States to Canada and vice versa. Nevertheless, this historically grown interaction in the borderlands becomes increasingly difficult. ← 185 | 186 → Permeability and mobility across the border is no longer taken for granted. With the thickening of the Canada-U.S. border after 9/11, due to increased securitization and new documentation requirements for travelers, local communities all along the 49th Parallel are at a crossroads.

The increase in security measures has led to a decrease in personal interaction, especially from people fearing to be racially profiled: “East Indians who’d grown raspberries along the U.S. side for decades stopped visiting Abbotsford relatives to avoid the humiliating questions and searches on the drive home” (208). Due to the use of border cameras and surveillance local residents felt a total lack of privacy and an erosion of civil rights and liberties: “And complaints about the border cams rose to a boil. They track us whenever we step outside! residents told local councils with no say over the patrol or its cameras” (208). Not only are new security cameras installed, but also airborne surveillance established:

Still, the security and surveillance continued to escalate as Patera almost doubled patrols yet again to keep his ever-growing force busy. Most vehicles cruising the northern line after dusk were now green-and-whites. Few people took notice of the little flying drone when it first began traversing the 49th like some oversized, high-altitude bird, though they were alarmed to learn that the unmanned military aircraft’s cameras could read a cereal box from fifteen thousand feet. (208)

Lynch, the former journalist, picks up on local news stories and recent security policies under the Obama Administration concerning the Canada-U.S. border:

Instead of ‘un-thickening’ the border, the new administration has kept the Bush policies in place and even piled more on: in February, the U.S. sent unmanned aerial surveillance drones to patrol parts of the border with Canada. The drones, which can detect human movement 10 km away, are supposed to help catch smugglers. But they have raised concerns about privacy in border communities, and although they are unarmed, give the 49th parallel something in common with the tribal lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Savage 28)

At the beginning of part three, that is chapter 30, the reader learns about yet another escalation similar to the beginning of part two when the border was closed after Brandon’s amazing bust of the alleged bomber. This time Lynch uses a park evacuation to show the extremes to which the exaggerated climate of paranoia leads. At the Girl Scout festival in Peace Arch Park an alleged bomb was found (221). The Pacific Northwest is all of a sudden on the map of news coverage and public awareness:

A dirty-bomb scare that caused the evacuation of eight thousand Girl Scouts at Peace Arch Park was enough to lead a slow news day, especially with the kickers of dairy terrorism, a firebombing and an impending curfew. A war of sorts – what else could you ← 186 | 187 → call it? – had seemingly rolled over the Canadian border into the Pacific Northwest. (222–23)

Fear spread and people “went to bed numbed by the sensation that their country, their county, even their neighborhood, was under attack” (223). In the end it turned out to be false alarm on all accounts (223). There is a strong fictionalization of actual events. Lynch also includes the Lynden tunnel44 in his novel (274–75). Brandon, though no longer a border agent after having resigned to help out with his father’s dairy, puts two and two together and discovers the tunnel (271). He warns his love interest Madeline who was involved in the bud smuggling.

In Border Songs eventually it all comes down to money. Trade and the economy are the catalysts in creating normalcy again along the border in the Pacific Northwest:

The border cams – first feared, then ridiculed – were now forgotten. Nineteen-year-old Americans resumed crossing the ditch for the ritual thrill of legal drinking. More Canadians ventured south to buy groceries and gas and awaited the September 10 grand opening of the Lucky Dog Casino just over the line. Bud smuggling slowed down, as if there’d been a cease-fire or the outlaws themselves had lost interest, although a better explanation surfaced in The Economist, which concluded that the rising Canadian dollar had accomplished what the drug czar and Border Patrol and police forces couldn’t. (276)

Life returns to what it used to be thanks to the exchange rate and not due to the official border management.

5.3    Border Echoes: Beyond Bodies, Buds, and Birds

The geopolitical border between the United States and Canada is frequently transgressed in the novel. Illegal drug and human trafficking take place. These activities subvert the border while, at the same time, relying on its existence in order to make a profitable business. Lynch’s article “A trip to ‘Vansterdam’” highlights the differences in attitude between Americans and Canadians regarding marijuana, Vancouver being the New Amsterdam or “Vansterdam.” Coupland emphasizes the scale of bud growing operations, equaling a tremendous business and large industry in British Columbia (48). In his piece of journalism Lynch quotes Peter Ostrovsky, an agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as saying: “The geography lends itself to smuggling. It ← 187 | 188 → always has” and the border resembles “a fenceless, invisible seam” (Lynch, “Vansterdam”). Smuggling is thus not a new phenomenon and does not justify a sudden rebordering effort out of proportion.

The author echoes the significant transformation of the border from neighborhood place to a “generalized danger zone” (Rodney 385) or “a war-front (Barta). Lynch plays with contrasts between idyllic and dangerous, when he first describes the well-known idyllic features of the valley and then refers to the “muddy El Camino with Arizona plates” announcing the arrival of the minutemen45:

[Brandon] turned off Badger onto Swanson and tried to focus on comforting familiar sights: freshly plowed fields of dirt the color of powdered chocolate; pastures so thick with dandelions he saw nothing but yellow; pom-poms of blooming maples, crabapples and alders packing the eastern hillsides […]. He wheeled past a rusty dozer 4 SALE […], before braking alongside a muddy El Camino with Arizona plates on the fringe of Gil Honcoop’s sixty wooded acres, a border-straddling mix of trees, bushes and meadows popular with smugglers and songbirds. (102)

Smugglers and songbirds both transgress and transcend the border. They represent two legally disparate forms of border crossings. Brandon encounters the Southern minutemen who also want to build a fence on the Northern border (104). Rodney postulates that “the increasing militarization of the land borders has led to a paradigm shift in the conception of the border, which is now managed as a singular line that needs fortification and control” (Rodney 385). Furthermore, Rodney encapsulates the changes along the borders of the United States with its neighbors as a “heightened climate of border insecurity” (385). Instead of creating security, paradoxically insecurity is increased along the borders.

5.3.1    Liminal Limbo: “Line Dancing”

After their arrest, the Prince and Princess of Nowhere have to inhabit for an undisclosed amount of time a liminal space of “betwixt and between” (Turner 465). By illegally crossing the Canada-U.S. border and being caught by Brandon they crossed a “threshold,” as liminality means “literally ‘being-on-a-threshold’” (Turner 465) and find themselves in a precarious in-between space. They are caught seemingly in flight during a blizzard and are then held in custody. The need to identify their place of residence and nationality is paramount to extradite ← 188 | 189 → these illegal migrants. Lynch criticizes the detention of illegal aliens through protagonist Brandon’s thoughts upon reading the article entitled “STUCK IN LIMBO HELL” (130) on the Princess of Nowhere. The illegals are numbered as Brandon observes: “the princess was 908, just like Pearl was 39” (131). The term “limbo” is reminiscent of Victor Turner’s explanation of van Gennep’s “rite of passage” (Turner 466). Van Gennep’s second stage according to Turner “margin or limen (meaning threshold), the subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence” (Turner 466–67). The worth of migrants is seemingly on par with that of animals. Being in between, neither able to stay in the United States nor to go back home, most of the illegals “would wait in cells for months, even years – if the government didn’t know where to send them – before they ever got a hearing” (131). They have to wait46 in a Bhabha-like “third space,” in-between, neither here nor there, on the border in a no-man’s land. This “limbo” state is likened to hell, another waiting place, though in a different realm. Waiting without knowing one’s fate or the time-frame is a permanent stasis. Illegal border mobility thus leads to a frozen and indeterminate state of immobility. Brandon is haunted by his involuntary contribution to the liminal state of the Princess of Nowhere as he paints her with a fleeting expression. Migrants are quintessentially liminal as they exit one life and enter a new life of hope and opportunity.

5.3.2    Anthropomorphous Aviary: Arresting Art and Migrants

Brandon paints all the migrants he accidentally apprehends – while birding on the job – as human migratory birds. His abstract paintings emanate from his memory (245) and he states in a conversation with Madeline that he does not emulate “a camera” (247). The paintings are stacked everywhere in his room and showing Madeline the canvasses Brandon recalls “whom he caught where and what they did or said” (246). Brandon’s art is arresting in both senses of the term. Madeline describes his art as “amazing” (246) and is literally arrested by the sight, “her eyes fixed on another startling painting, a flock of birds with Asian faces” (248–49). These dual migrants – illegal aliens and simultaneously migratory birds – have been arrested by Brandon when they tried to illegally cross the Canada-U.S. border to stay or to smuggle contraband. These arrested people are an arresting sight to behold, whether for Brandon in the moment of capture or for the person looking at their painted resemblances. ← 189 | 190 →

Birds seasonally migrate, easily transcend boundaries, and their flight patterns and destinations are more or less predictable. This is not the case for human migrants. They are less predictable. Migratory birds are often treated more humanely than human migrants, who are treated like animals, caught and caged. Human unlike avian migrants cannot transcend geopolitical boundaries at will. Their passage and entry is regulated, restricted, and monitored. Illegal migrants are treated as criminals in spite of human tragedy or the promise to welcome those “yearning to breathe free” (Lazarus). Even legal migrants, newcomers to a place and perceived as “strangers” by the locals, have a hard time. Migratory birds always return to their place of origin, whereas migrants in times of transnationalism and globalization often stay. Nonetheless, Eastern Canadians (and others) flocking to sunny and warm Florida and other warm locales in winter are humorously called “snowbirds” and annually migrate. The designation “Snowbirds” is also the name for the famous squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force performing and representing Canada at air shows. These mechanical snowbirds stand in for state-power and a glorious and national identity-inducing military past while resembling performers in a national aviary.

The concept of flyways regarding migratory birds parallels the practice of varying smuggling routes for human migration. These escape routes for migrants follow certain pathways as do flyways for migratory birds. In Border Songs the human migrants resemble migratory birds, whose bird songs become border songs for the humans. The linkage between humans and birds is a pervasive and persuasive trope in the novel. Exotic migrants such as the Prince and Princess of Nowhere and neotropical migratory birds share foreign connections and land in the midst of the local cross-border community. “Big Bird” Brandon paints the human migrants as migratory songbirds singing their desperate border songs in their distinctive voices. It is a crucial difference if one travels or escapes inhumane conditions and needs to emigrate.

The connection between human and avian migration is further corroborated by Ivan Grabovac’s article “Preserving the Great White North: Migratory Birds, Italian Immigrants, and the Making of Ecological Citizenship Across the U.S.-Canada Border, 1900–1924.” He states various reasons on the part of the United States and Canada regarding the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty47, at the time Great Britain representing Canada (Grabovac 117–18). According to Grabovac, ← 190 | 191 → “[t]he Migratory Bird Treaty was negotiated in the context of nativism in the U.S. (English-speaking Canada produced its own complementary version of nativism)” (118). Grabovac posits that “wildlife preservation and immigration restriction” went hand in hand “in the first quarter of the twentieth century” as far as the United States were concerned (120). Racial profiling happened at the Canada-U.S. border for non-Nordic migrants: “Even as the U.S.-Canada border remained ‘soft’ for Nordics – and migrating birds – it became ‘harder’ for certain groups of human migrants, whom preservationists in both countries, but especially the U.S., regarded as threats to wildlife abundance” (Grabovac 120). Konrad and Nicol do not stress the connection to “nativist environmentalism” (Grabovac 119 referring to Park and Pellow), but also highlight the diverse composition of the proponents in favor of protecting birds as a “coalition of conservationists and hunters” (Konrad and Nicol 224).

In “The Ugly Mediterranean” U.S. author Jonathan Franzen, himself a passionate birder and vocal spokesperson for engaging in birding and protecting birds, describes “songbird trapping” (Franzen 75) as a practice still widespread in Cyprus, Malta, and Italy. He writes about how the European bird directive is circumvented and illegal operations to make money unfold under the pretense of keeping an important tradition alive. Franzen uses the term “migrants” and means migratory birds by it. Therefore, the border between avian and human migrants is blurred as in Lynch’s novel. The discovery of his love for birds commits Franzen to the protection of the environment and fighting against climate change. Along with a couple of other birders, Franzen is part of the U.S.-based HBO documentary48 on birding in Central Park.

In Lynch’s novel actual birds and bird-like humans abound. The image of an aviary presents itself. On one side of the boundary is one national aviary, and on the other side is the other national aviary. The border as a “sanctuary line” and “meeting place” resembles a metaphorical bird sanctuary or a transnational aviary. The nation-states control their respective air spaces. This security measure is encapsulated by the unmanned drones used for surveillance on the border. As opposed to a bird cage, an aviary creates the illusion of freedom for the birds and more closely resembles bird habitat. Nonetheless, birds in an aviary are ultimately enclosed and guarded by the zookeepers. The border guards representing state power act as zookeepers for the border residents in their aviaries. Lynch explicitly describes certain people with bird-like ← 191 | 192 → characteristics such as in the bar scene when some of the locals wear their garb. Border guard “Big Bird” Brandon blurs the distinction between zookeeper and birds enclosed by the aviary. He becomes part of the birds while birding. The actual birds are free to transcend the international boundary between Canada and the United States at will, but the bird-like humans in the novel resemble anthropomorphous birds in an aviary. The illegal migrants, though in name also likened to free neotropical avian migrants or migratory birds, if caught, are not only part of the aviary system kept in place by the zookeepers, but are stuck into a bird cage. This bird cage is a detention center and called “in limbo hell.” Dancing the liminal limbo is like a bird being stuck on a lime stick (Franzen). A migrant, whether avian or human, can flap the wings, but without hope to escape on their own.

The state symbol on the coat of arms of the United States is the eagle. This majestic bird soars and is above and beyond the mundane. The cross-border community in Blaine, WA and White Rock, BC is envisioned as an aviary. In this aviary the U.S. eagle represents state power. The powerful eagle is likened to the U.S. border guards or the zookeepers in the aviary scenario sketched out above. The Canadian national symbol is the beaver. A beaver lives in the water, fells trees and builds dams. Even though the Canadian representation is not a bird, a beaver transcends borders in the water and makes rivers and ponds flood, also across boundaries. Both national representations have the potential to undermine the boundary. However, Canada’s icons also include birds such as Canada geese and common loons49, and the aforementioned snowbirds.

The American eagle is part of the Great Seal, the seal of the President, and is thus featured on the U.S. dollar bills. A real-life eagle soars, diving down to catch salmon and is a bird of prey. Eagles in this scenario watch the border with eagle eyes, though themselves transcending earthly human-made boundaries. The airspace is also policed and controlled according to national sovereignty, but for animals in contrast to airplanes this does not apply. The Migratory Bird Act protects migratory birds. Local birds cannot be hindered either to fly over the international boundary at will. The same holds true for other animals. Regarding the aviary conceptualization the focus is on birds though. ← 192 | 193 →

5.3.3    Airborne: Brandon “Free as a Bird”50

Brandon, a successful agent himself, compares his trainer Dionne’s confident interrogation style to the techniques employed by good birders: “Then she came at them again, closing in without making it obvious, just as good birders approach birds without ever walking directly at them” (65). In chapter ten Lynch depicts how the Border Patrol works and shows the morale of the Roadies in contrast to rooky Brandon and Dionne. McAfferty asks the quintessential question regarding the significance of what the Border Patrol does: “I mean, what are we really doing? Stopping people from getting work or – God forbid! – getting high” (68). Recreational drug usage needs to be distinguished from medicinal drugs51. At the bar, where the Border Patrol agents are gathered, the community meets, and agents and the locals mingle. The bar setting and the alcohol create a level playing field. For Brandon people “in their loudest garb” resemble “songbirds in spring” (70). Spring is a season of renewal and blossoming abundance. So bird metaphors come up time and again regarding people’s appearances or behavior. Lynch even uses the Pontiac “Sunbird” make as one of the cars Brandon successfully pursues (77).

The bird trope is ubiquitous in the novel. Moreover, the birds are anthropomorphic. They seem to speak to Brandon. He can distinguish the words or lyrics of their mating and territorial songs, for instance the “know-it-all robin” who sings: “I know everything” (103). This incident occurs with Madeline in mind. Brandon, the bird aficionado, is so absorbed and consumed with the Border Patrol and his involuntary arrests that he even stops listing the birds: “Brandon was too distracted to count the birds. In fact, he hadn’t been able to muster an accurate daily count for weeks now” (103). The birding count is like a meter measuring his mood, so Brandon not counting birds any longer signals the level of stress he experiences.

The author employs the bird trope very frequently throughout the novel. Already, the book’s title Border Songs alludes to bird songs. Lynch uses intermedial and intertextual references to connect the bird trope with his interpretation of the meaning of the border. In a book review by Barber this tendency is summarized: “Lynch’s comic borderland is not only palpable, it is richly metaphoric” (2). Lynch alludes to Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Walton Ford’s painting Falling Bough on the hardcover jacket of Border Songs, and the Beatles ← 193 | 194 → song Blackbird. The lyrics52 are a powerful reminder of the beauty of freedom when a bird with broken wings finally regains his strength, soars into flight and sings. The notion of freedom, that Americans vocally claim and want to retain, is the very thing that is undermined by the security efforts and paranoia. Americans become hostages to their fears, suspicions, and anxieties. The American dream of freedom is seemingly over.

Apart from these bird references, Brandon, the main protagonist does not only love birding and has an extraordinary gift for this activity, but also paints birds and bird-like people he apprehends in the line of his duty. He sees himself akin to birds, being in a sense an anthropomorphous bird. Himself feeling very close to nature and animals, he is “overwhelmed” by the fauna as he watches “a low flock of eleven tundra swans [who] soared overhead in subdued exile” as well as other birds such as dunlins (59). He also feels a kinship to cows: “Seeing them play relaxed him, just as it enraged him to see them bullied. How could anyone be cruel to animals that were powerful enough to walk through walls yet hated to be alone and balked at stepping over hoses, puddles or even a bright line of paint” (58–59)? Brandon is like one of them in the sense that he is as big and equally sensitive. When he observes “one of the largest flocks of snow geese he’d ever seen” and sees them take off, it is a magnificent sight and sound and he “tilted back and joined in, honking along with the flock […]” (60).

When Brandon arrests the illegal migrants of Nowhere he “flew twenty-six feet from takeoff to landing” (8). It is described as “his flight” (8) by the town gossips. He himself describes it as being “airborne long enough to watch himself in flight” (9). For Brandon it is an “out-of-body sensation” related to his special “gift” (9). It is rendered by Walton Ford’s painting on the book jacket. This painting represents a human, a statue-like giant, in flight, though on closer inspection it is a bough or branch carried away by carrier pigeons. The human in flight matches Brandon and the idea of Brandon, which Lynch depicts: “Regardless, he saw himself from above, his arms flung out like albatross wings until they collapsed around the runaways in a flying hug as he used their brittle bodies to break his landing” (9).

Another flight experience connected to actual birds is the swan experience. Brandon has a training session with Dionne when he sees the trumpeters. He ← 194 | 195 → is mentally transformed into a swan and wants to take off with the flock of one hundred swans:

Brandon imagined his own bones hollowing, his legs disappearing, his neck stretching, his pectoral muscles thickening, his brain shrinking to fit into a tiny soft skull, his 17,238 feathers working as one to catch up with the others. He twitched his butt muscles, steering with his tail feathers, and raised his arms, fully extending his seven-foot wingspan […]. (30)

For Brandon being and flying like a bird in a flock finally means fitting in into a community, albeit of swans, escaping human and societal demands and just living. In a conversation with Madeline he states that he feels connected to animals and believes in reincarnation (247). The deepest connection he feels is with “Jersey cows, snowy owls, Australian shepherds, blue herons and so on” (247). Thanks to his special gift as someone probably autistic and definitely dyslexic the natural world is a world that is easily accessible, much more easily than the human world with all the complicated factors in human behavior and society. He is at ease in the natural environment.

Being very big and tall the shoes from the Border Patrol are too small for Brandon. This creates “the floating sensation of being detached from the earth” (6). The notion of “floating” corresponds with the bird trope. Brandon transcends the earth-sky dichotomy and seemingly floats everywhere, similar to the ditch that “overflowed into both countries every fall” (4). The picture of Brandon arresting the two illegals is circulated on both sides of the line and is a taste of future greatness to come for Brandon: “That image soon made the rounds on both sides of the border, the first irrefutable evidence that Brandon Vanderkool’s stint with the BP was more than a onetime sight gag […]” (8). Brandon and Wayne have more in common than their function in Lynch’s basic scheme to show the arbitrariness of the border and the absurdity of security escalation and concomitant paranoia. In addition they both share the love for Madeline. Wayne as Madeline’s father loves her very much and in the end succeeds in sending her to rehab after providing her with a false alibi. Brandon in turn makes this possible out of his love for Madeline, because he warns Madeline when he finds the illegal border tunnel before he alerts the Border Patrol about the tunnel. Both men save Madeline from herself and the consequences of her destructive addiction and lifestyle. Thanks to both of them there is a chance of redemption for Madeline. Their love trumps the vicious circle of addiction and the traps of illegal drug smuggling and growing. ← 195 | 196 →

5.4    Summary

Lynch’s novel Border Songs deals with borders in more than one way: He highlights the geographical border setting between Canada and the United States and reveals the process of bordering within a given, in this case a cross-border, community. Identity formation in terms of self, family, community, and nation is inextricably linked to notions of borders and the physical and metaphysical presence of divisions and bordered entities. Lynch uses the medium of the novel to reflect upon important developments in Canada-U.S. relations embodied in the shared international boundary between the two countries. He constructs the key components of his novel such as plot, setting, characters, and the tropes to underline his border message. This is encapsulated in his critique of the arbitrariness of borders, whether geographical or societal, his warning against paranoia, and his call to question power relations as well as top-down politics and policies. He does so by the reversal of commonly held notions regarding the enforcement of the geographical boundary as represented in the fictional yet realistic story-world of Border Songs. The subversion of power relations at the border (between Border Patrol agents and people crossing the border legally or illegally), by means of irony and humor is shown.

These narrative techniques infuse Lynch’s vivid and succinct language as well as the humorous and captivating tone of the novel, albeit the occasional cliché and the use of any memorable news story related to the Canada-U.S. border. Lynch uses all conceivable and prominent issues concerning U.S. borders in the novel, from the tunnel to the minuteman, from the notion of the marihuana party in Canada to alleged racial profiling in the United States. He draws on the standard notions of how Canada and the United States see each other and who the bad guy is and who is not. He also employs Canadian references to create a sense of place, for example in Wayne’s house. Lynch’s characters, the Rousseau and the Vanderkool families, are stricken not only by one disaster but several. The idyllic small-town Pacific Northwest border life is disrupted by illness, loss, addiction, unfulfilled longings and suppressed desires, dysfunctional father-child relations, lack of money, loneliness beneath love, and redemption in this triad of trial, tragedy, and triumph. In sum, the border is arbitrary, simultaneously including and excluding, needed and not needed for identity construction of self and community. Consequently, the border fulfills multiple often contradictory functions, is ambivalent and complex and manifests itself geographically, and in a more abstract, metaphysical way, in terms of society, community, and self. ← 196 | 197 →

37     “Few images better reveal the arbitrary nature of the border between western Canada and the western United States than those recorded by the survey crews who first marked the forty-ninth parallel” (Jameson and Mouat 183).

38     “Land of Liberty,” Lyrics Samuel F. Smith from “America” <> Referenced in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech in 1963.

39     Lynch uses the bunco game as it has a prohibition past and is regaining popularity (World Bunco Association).

40     This echoes Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo featuring the scene with the steamer in the jungle. The film is linked to madness: “‘Fitzcarraldo’ may well be a madman’s dream […]” (New York Times Movie Review).

41     An analysis of the reception and the possible differences in the reception by American and Canadian readerships will be a future project.

42     See Laurie Ricou’s work Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory.

43     Mark Twain’s original: “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” <>.

44     See <> 5 Dec. 2009.

45     “The Minutemen Project, a popular American movement that has been growing since its founding in 2004, is perhaps the strongest signal of the invigorated pathology of border insecurity” (Rodney 386). Minutemen comprise “[a] group of armed volunteer civilians […]” (Rodney 386).

46     Reminiscent regarding stasis and waiting are for instance the following literary works: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and Kafka’s Before the Law.

47     “Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 which established protection for birds migrating between the United States and Canada, and also protected their eggs, feathers and nests from any form of disturbance” (Konrad and Nicol 224).

48     See <> 27 July 2014.

49     A loonie is a Canadian one dollar coin featuring a loon on one side of the coin, hence the designation. < >> 11 May 2013.

50     “Free as a Bird” is also the title of a “Beatles” song released as part of the “Anthology”.

51     Elections 2012 Results in WA State <>.

52     “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise […]” (Beatles).

<> 26 Mar 2013.