Mandahla: Border Songs

"Everyone remembered the night Brandon Vanderkool flew across the Crawfords' snowfield and tackled the Prince and Princess of Nowhere." Jim Lynch's new novel opens with Brandon, a newly-appointed border patrolman, scanning the terrain of the Washington State-British Columbia "nonchalant border" for anything that didn't belong (and then tackling it). Six feet eight, with a "lopsided smile and defiant wedge of hair," he's getting paid for doing what he's always loved doing--looking closely at his world, where he compulsively counts birds and creates art à la Andy Goldsworthy. He thinks in pictures; because of the way he sees, he has an uncanny knack for finding smugglers. Brandon's job with the BP was his father's idea to get him off their dairy farm and into interaction with people. Traveling beyond the farmlands nestled between the mountains and the inland sea disorients him, and he struggles with conversation, trying to "learn the language between and beneath the words that everyone else played off."

The Canadians and Americans were friendly neighbors, until recently. Young Canadians stacked "trophy homes on abrupt hills with imperial views of America," and there's a feeling that most this wealth is due to pot growing and alien smuggling. Add to that security concerns after 9/11, and "spontaneity had up and left the valley." The people who inhabit this border area are crazy, sad, funny and sometimes desperate. Brandon's father, Norm, is a dairy farmer who is building a sailboat in the back barn, while his wife is losing her mind, a third of his herd is too sick to milk and he worries that the sailboat will never get to the sea. He wonders what it would feel like to not second-guess himself at 3:15 every morning, and asks, "How do you give upon cows that haven't given up on you?"

Madeline Rousseau is the object of Brandon's unrequited desire; her father, retired Canadian professor Wayne Rousseau, having been diagnosed with MS, self-medicates with pot and is obsessed with recreating past scientific breakthroughs like gunpowder or the compass. Madeline has a job harvesting pot plants--better pay than the nursery--while Wayne daydreams that he might be remembered for his ability to elucidate American hubris and hypocrisy.

Then there is Brandon's mother, Jeannette, who has early Alzheimer's; Sophie, the massage therapist who is filming and interviewing everyone in the valley; Korean hookers caught on the tideflats; angry Chinese women hiding under a fish truck and a "van full of scared aliens huddled like chickadees trying to keep warm in a birdhouse"; zany border patrollers; fifth-grade math teachers, principals and raspberry farmers, many of whom are smuggling both pot and people. And cows: "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?"

In Border Songs, Jim Lynch does for birds and the northwestern border what he did for sea creatures and south Puget Sound in his lovely The Highest Tide; he has an equal affinity for showing us the beauty and humor of humanity. The illusory security of the border reminds us that our lives are also fragile, but Lynch has crafted a story of love, redemption and acceptance that reminds us of what is true and strong.--Marilyn Dahl

Shelf Talker: A lyrical, quirky novel about love and loyalty, and birds and cows, set on the "handshake" border of Canada and the U.S.

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