A magnificent novel of birding, smuggling, farming and extraordinary love, Border Songs welcomes us to a changing community populated with some of the most memorable characters in recent fiction.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 3, 1961
Place of Birth:Seattle, Washington
Education:B.A.s in English and Journalism, 1985
Read an Excerpt
IEVERYONE REMEMBERED the night Brandon Vanderkool flew across the Crawfords’ snowfield and tackled the Prince and Princess of Nowhere. The story was so unusual and repeated so vividly so many times that it braided itself into memories along both sides of the border to the point that you forgot you hadn’t actually witnessed it yourself.The night began like the four before it, with Brandon trying not to feel like an impostor as he scanned the fields, hillsides and roads for people, cars, sacks, shadows or anything else that didn’t belong, doubting once again he had whatever it took to become an agent.He rolled past Tom Dunbar’s dormant raspberry fields, where in a fit of patriotism Big Tom had built a twenty-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty, which was either aging swiftly or perhaps, as the old man claimed, had been vandalized by Canadians. Brandon reluctantly waved at the Erickson brothers—who laughed and mock-saluted once they recognized him in uniform—and rattled past Dirk Hoffman’s dairy, where Dirk himself stood on a wooden stepladder completing his latest reader-board potshot at the environmentalists: MOUTHWASH IS A PESTICIDE TOO! Brandon tapped his horn politely, then swerved through semifrozen potholes across the center line to get a cleaner look at the fringed silhouette of a red-tailed hawk, twenty-six, the white rump of a northern flicker, twenty-seven, and, suspended above everything, the boomerang shape of a solo tree swallow, twenty-eight.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. He’d spent all of his twenty-three years in these farmlands and humble towns pinned between the mountains and the inland sea along the top of Washington State. Traveling beyond this grid had always disoriented him, especially when it involved frenzied cities twitching with neon and pigeons and bug-eyed midgets gawking up at him. A couple hours in the glassy canyons of Seattle or Vancouver could jam his circuits, jumble his words and leave him worrying his life would end before he had a chance to understand it.Some people blamed his oddities on his dyslexia, which was so severe that one giddy pediatrician called it a gift: while he might never learn how to spell or read better than the average fourth grader, he’d always see things the rest of us couldn’t. Others speculated that he was simply too large for this world. Though Brandon claimed to be six-six, because that was all the height most people could fathom, he was actually a quarter inch over six-eight—and not a spindly six-eight either, but 232 pounds of meat and bone stacked vertically beneath a lopsided smile and a defiant wedge of hair that gave him the appearance of an unfinished sculpture. His size had always triggered unreasonable expectations. Art teachers claimed that his unusual bird paintings were as extraordinary as his body. Basketball coaches babbled about his potential until he quit hoops for good after watching that huge Indian in Cuckoo’s Nest drop the ball in the hole for a giddy Jack Nicholson. Tall women fawned over his potential too, until they heard his confusing raves and snorting laughs or took a closer look at his art.Near dusk, Brandon wheeled up Northwood past the no casino! yard signs toward the nonchalant border, a geographical handshake heralded here by nothing more than a drainage ditch that turned raucous with horny frogs in the spring and overflowed into both countries every fall. The ditch was one of the few landmarks along the nearly invisible boundary that cleared the Cascades and fell west through lush hills that blurred the line no matter how aggressively it was chainsawed and weed-whacked. From there, as thin as a rumor, the line cut through lakes and swamps and forests and fields. After turning into a ditch for a few miles, the line climbed one more hill before dropping again, slicing through Peace Arch Park and splashing into salt water. The park was all most travelers saw of the border, but locals drove into the valley to gawk at this ditch that divided the two countries and created a rural strip where Canadians and Americans drove on parallel two-lane roads, Boundary Road to the south and Zero Avenue to the north, just a grassy gutter away from each other, waving like friendly neighbors—until recently, that is.Most passersby didn’t notice anything different. The soggy, fertile valley still rolled out for miles in every direction until it bumped into a horseshoe of mountains—Alp-like peaks to the north, a jagged range to the east and Mount Baker’s massive year-round snowball to the southeast—that gave the impression the only way out was west through the low-slung San Juan islands. There were still orderly rows of raspberry canes, fields bigger and greener than the Rose Bowl and dozens of pungent dairies with most of the cows hooked to computers that automated feeding and maximized the river of milk exiting daily in the metal bellies of tankers the size of oil trucks.But a closer look hinted at the changes. Many barns and silos had nothing to do with cattle or farms anymore. U.S. border towns no longer served as burger pit stops for Canadian skiers dragging home from Baker. And nineteen-year-old Americans stopped rallying across the line for the novelty of legal drinking. Yet despite the slump in legitimate commerce, a curious construction boom was taking place on both sides. New cul-de-sacs rolled north like advancing armies, and young Canadians continued stacking trophy homes on abrupt hills with imperial views of America.Brandon trolled Boundary Road past the home of Sophie Winslow, the masseuse who seemingly everyone visited but nobody knew. A black sedan cruised the Canadian side of the ditch, the driver avoiding eye contact and accelerating as Brandon closed in on his family’s thirty-four-acre dairy with its three barns, one silo and two-story house that looked naked in the winter without blooming willows or a dinghy full of tulips pulling your eyes off its weathered planks. Overhead lights brightened the back barn, where his father, no doubt, was resanding teak already rubbed smooth as brass while obsessing over what he still couldn’t afford, such as a mast, sails or a reliable diesel. A television winked through the kitchen window. Was Jeopardy! already on? The show exercised his mother’s memory, as she put it, at least when she remembered to watch it. Brandon glanced back across the ditch at the row of houses along Zero Ave. Did Madeline Rousseau still live with her father? How long had it been since he’d even talked to her? You apparently couldn’t bump into Canadians anymore. Spontaneity had up and left the valley.He puttered past the Moffats’ farm before pulling up for a closer look at icicles dangling from their roadside shed. He thumped his head unfolding from his rig, then snapped off a stout icicle, dipped its flat end into a slushy puddle and froze it like a spike to the hood of his idling rig while listening to the final mechanical exertions of the day—grumbling generators, misfiring V-8s, grinding snowplows. He stamped his thick-soled boots, trying to create room for his toes. The agency’s largest boots were a half size too small and gave him the floating sensation of being detached from the earth. He heard the rat-a-tat of a downy woodpecker, twenty-nine, and the nervous chip of a dark-eyed junco, thirty. Brandon could identify birds a mile away by their size and flight and many of their voices by a single note. During the climax of spring, he often counted a dozen birds from his pillow without opening his eyes. 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 he intended to or not.He snapped off two smaller icicles, and then tried to moisten and freeze them to opposite sides of his original hood spike, but they wouldn’t stick. He flattened their butt ends with his teeth, redipped them in the puddle and tried again. One held, then the other, creating for several seconds a glittering hood ornament before it toppled and shattered. He was eagerly starting over when he heard what sounded like crackling cellophane.Deer often glided through at this hour. Or maybe the Moffats’ turkeys had just busted loose. When Brandon looked up, he noticed it was snowing again, then counted seven child-sized shadows darting through the curtain of firs dividing the Moffats’ farm from the Crawfords’. Glancing toward the border, to see if others were hopping the ditch, he saw nothing but taillights. By the time he turned back to the trees, the shadows were gone. Grabbing his portable radio, he tried to summon the casual murmur he’d been practicing.“I’ll see if two-twenty-nine’s in the area,” the dispatcher replied in a similar disinterested mumble.229 was Dionne. The thought of his trainer backing him up wasn’t what flustered Brandon. It was the fact that two union guys had already warned him to always wait for backup, whereas Dionne insisted that all he ever needed was someone rolling in his direction. During his first solo patrol he’d heard her say on the radio, “I’ve got bodies,” as if rounding up six Pakistanis were no more complicated than picking up a sixer at the Qwik Stop. She averaged almost twice as many arrests as any other agent and, as a result, was what the others respectfully, if begrudgingly, called a shit magnet.Brandon loped toward the firs before remembering he’d left his motor idling and his Beretta on the passenger seat. Too late. He knew the trees opened into a leased pasture that led to Pangborn Road, where a van was probably waiting, and from there they were just minutes away from vanishing into the I-5 bloodstream. He ran harder once he made out the stampede of tiny footprints beneath branches the size of airplane wings, and two shadows finally bobbed into view. He shouted “Border Patrol!” for the first time in his life. To his ears, sounded like a self-mocking falsetto. He might as well have yelled “Boo!” or “Ready or not!”The shorter shadow glanced back, squealed and slipped to a knee before being hoisted by the other. What if they were just kids? Scaring children was another phobia of his. Babies loved him, but kids cowered no matter how small and friendly he tried to make himself.Lumpy ground almost tripped him twice before he broke free of the trees into a mini-blizzard and a crunchy field. He knew the Crawfords’ pasture was ditched for drainage, but he didn’t know where and stumbled again, half-toppling before lurching back on track and spotting another five of them—or was it seven?—scattered ahead.Even after the academy, a week as a trainee and four nights on solo patrols, he’d never pictured himself in actual pursuit. Everything had been in the abstract, like auditioning for some role he didn’t want or expect to get. But what choices did he have? His father had forced him off the dairy and nobody else was hiring. So here he was, in painful boots, in a slippery pasture less than a mile from his home, in pursuit. Yet compared to faking patrols, this felt oddly relaxing, his body coiling into an efficient glide until Dionne’s warning echoed inside him: Assume everyone is carrying a nuclear device.The road was still sixty yards away and he didn’t see any vehicles waiting, although he heard and then saw one howling in their direction. The smaller shadow glanced back again and squealed. It was light enough to make out her anguished features. A woman? An Asian or a Mexican or . . . a woman. He had an urge to help her, but by the time he caught up with them he was too winded for words. He just lunged for their outer shoulders, simultaneously stubbing his left boot, cramping his right hamstring and catapulting himself horizontally into the sudden blaze of Dionne’s flashlight.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 like sending a dwarf to the plate to shrink the strike zone. Though Alexandra Cole didn’t see it herself, she would later swear that Brandon flew twenty-six feet from takeoff to landing, which eventually went unquestioned alongside such facts as his flight occurred during a freak blizzard at dusk on March twenty-first, that he was unarmed at the time and wearing size-nineteen boots that were too small. 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. What made it an instant favorite was that for once a border bust had been made by someone everybody knew. And as it played out, the illegals Brandon tackled were not generic aliens, but rather a regal couple from some unknown nation.From Brandon’s vantage, he was simply airborne long enough to watch himself in flight, and he’d experienced enough similar out-of-body sensations to chalk them up to his gift. 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. He heard a noise like a snapping wishbone before Dionne shouted his name. Her powerful light swung through snow-flakes the size of chicken feathers, blinding him, his breathless apologies interrupted by the murderous screech of a barn owl. Thirty-one.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Border Songs, Jim Lynch's first novel since his extraordinary debut, The Highest Tide.
1. “Everyone remembered the night Brandon Vanderkool flew across the Crawfords' snowfield and tackled the Prince and Princess of Nowhere.” What does the first sentence of the novel tell us about what's to come?
2. Have you read Jim Lynch's first novel, The Highest Tide? If so, what similarities do you find in Border Songs? Differences?
3. What are the major themes of Border Songs? What point is Lynch trying to make? Is he successful?
4. On page 13, Brandon says, “I think the most interesting people I'll meet these days will be criminals-or people about to become criminals.” Is he right?
5. Discuss Wayne Rousseau: Why does he try to replicate already-existing inventions? What is the significance of his choices-the lightbulb, The Great Gatsby? How does this intersect with his politics?
6. Compare Wayne and Norm. Why are they so antagonistic toward each other?
7. At several points in the novel, characters describe Brandon as seeing things differently, or seeing things that others don't see. Why do you think that is? How does it help him and hurt him?
8. Why does Madeline fall in with Toby? Why does she do what he asks? Why does she suddenly decide to stop?
9. On page 79, Lynch writes, “Now [Norm] 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.” How does Norm deal with this guilt? How does the notion of a war affect the way the novel's characters behave?
10. All around him, Norm's life is in upheaval: His cattle are sick, his wife is sick, his son is attracting attention that Norm finds embarrassing. How does he respond?
11. How does Brandon's relationship with the natural world-birds, cows, foliage, and so on-affect his abilities as a Border Patrol officer?
12. Discuss the area's reaction to Brandon's arrest of the bomber/smuggler, on pages 89-93. What is happening here?
13. Several Canadian characters compare the United States' policy on marijuana to Prohibition. Are they right? How does this relate to the vast number of previously law-abiding Americans who are willing to work with smugglers?
14. Why does Brandon stop counting birds (page 103)?
15. On page 156, McAfferty says, “Bad shit has always passed through here, but now we're watching so closely that we see way more of it.” Is this an accurate assessment?
16. Why is Norm building a boat, of all things?
17. What does Pearl's death signify? Is it a turning point for Norm?
18. “Astronauts' footprints stay on the moon forever,” Brandon whispers to Madeline on page 250, “because there's no wind to blow them away.” What is he trying to say? How do you imagine Madeline reacts?
19. What purpose does the character of Sophie serve in the novel? What did you think she was up to? Did the reality surprise you?
20. On page 290, the art expert says of Brandon's work, “His focus appears to be the instant before collapse-or surrender.” What does this mean, in terms of Brandon's art and his life?
21. Discuss the final scene, and Brandon's interaction with the swallows.
For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)