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  • Written by Jim Lynch
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Written by Jim LynchAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jim Lynch

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On Sale: June 16, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27190-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Set in the previously sleepy hinterlands straddling Washington state and British Columbia, Border Songs is the story of Brandon Vanderkool, six foot eight, frequently tongue-tied, severely dyslexic, and romantically inept. Passionate about bird-watching, Brandon has a hard time mustering enthusiasm for his new job as a Border Patrol agent guarding thirty miles of largely invisible boundary. But to everyone’s surprise, he excels at catching illegals, and as drug runners, politicians, surveillance cameras, and a potential sweetheart flock to this scrap of land, Brandon is suddenly at the center of something much bigger than himself.
 
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.

Excerpt

I

EVERYONE 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.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jim Lynch|Author Q&A

About Jim Lynch

Jim Lynch - Border Songs

Photo © Grace Lynch

Jim Lynch has received the H. L. Mencken Award and a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, among other national honors. His most recent novel, Border Songs, won the Washington State Book Award and is currently being adapted for television.

Author Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for Border Songs? Were there any actual incidents on the Canadian/US border that gave rise to the idea for this novel?
A:
I got hooked on the notion of setting a novel along the border after several trips up there as a journalist looking into security fears and marijuana smuggling. The western end of the border is not only gorgeous but a mindbender, too, seeing how the two countries are often divided by nothing more than a drainage ditch. Just the sight of the ever increasing number of green-and-white Border Patrol cars traversing the quiet farmlands was enough to get the novel rolling in my head. And yes, there were many news flashes on both sides of the ditch that helped inspire this story.

Q: Did you have to do much research for this novel? Ride around with border-patrol agents?Talk to folks who might have some insight into running a vast and highly organized marijuana smuggling business? Or operating a dairy farm? How close to the border do you yourself live?
A:
I did lots of research, first as a reporter, then as a novelist. The Border Patrol tripled its northern force during the two years after 9-11. But when I rode along with agents it became obvious that nobody was catching terrorists. What they were primarily doing was intercepting huge loads of British Columbia marijuana bound for big cities in the West. I watched agents marvel like teenagers over piles of potent buds. I interviewed Canadian activists and growers and found the B.C. marijuana scene amusing. While the U.S. government beefed up its drug war and called pot a deadly gateway drug, Canada flirted with legalization and grew so much marijuana indoors that Forbes called "B.C. bud" the province's largest agricultural export. One grinning smoker/grower explained to me that “the problem with Americans is that you’re so euphoriaphobic.” My research also included hanging out on a small dairy farm. I read books on birds, dyslexia, autism and landscape art too. I live about 150 miles south of the border.

Q: The idea of borders--between places, between people, between the natural world and the man-made, between past and future ways of life--runs through this novel. When you set out to write a story that takes place on an actual border, did you have all these bigger themes in mind?
A:
I was aware of the parallels as they arose, but I didn’t set out to create them. I trusted the setting, the characters and the material and tried to harness all the potential as the story evolved. My lasting impression of the 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. The 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. Many miles of it aren’t defined or patrolled, yet that doesn’t stop the recurring cries to “Secure the border!” This all struck me as provocative and comic material.

Q: Brandon Vanderkool is such a wonderful character and certainly an unlikely hero. Where did he come from? He seems in some respects a counterpart to Miles, the protagonist of your first novel, The Highest Tide. But while Miles is exceptionally short, Brandon's exceptionally tall; and whereas Miles is fascinated by marine life, Brandon's passion is focused skyward toward birds.Not a coincidence, I'm guessing?
A:
I’ve always admired highly observant people. So it probably makes sense that I’ve created a couple protagonists who tune into cool stuff that most of us miss. I wanted to create a rookie Border Patrol agent who was oddly and uniquely suited for the work despite his youth and awkwardness. Brandon is the one agent who’s lived along the border his whole life, so he notices what doesn’t belong. He's also far more alert than the average agent, in part because he's constantly scanning the terrain for unusual birds and opportunities for landscape art. In the beginning, I made Brandon so tall to amuse myself. But once he started to emerge on the page his extreme height seemed to fit his extreme mind and it was too late to make him anything other than exactly what he is.

Q: A real wonder for and reverence of the natural world pervades your novels. What in your life has fueled your interest in nature?
A:
I’ve spent most of my years in western Washington state, which is a soggy wonderland of mountains, bays and forests. We arguably don’t have all that much history or culture out here, but we’ve got some of the finest rain forests, glaciers and tidal flats in the world. Many of the moments I’ve felt most alive have been in these settings -- hiking, sailing, climbing, laughing.

Q: We have to ask: Are you a birder? Because only someone very well versed in the bird world and bird songs could so beautifully bring to life the birds that fly through this novel.
A:
Thanks. I’m somewhat of a birder now, but I wasn’t when I started into this novel. That was one of the treats of the research, learning how to identify birds. Along the way, I hung out with some of the best birders in the West, people so focused they filter everything else out and see and hear nothing but birds. Looking through their eyes, the world looked very different. As far as obsessions and habits go, I consider birding a healthy one.

Q: Of Brandon you write, "Some people blamed his oddities on his dyslexia, which was so severe that one glassy-eyed 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." Are you suggesting that it takes someone who literally sees things most people don't -- and perhaps someone who is (literally) larger than life -- to begin to straddle these borders?
A:
What you get with Brandon is someone who simply sees very clearly. Most of our minds are cluttered with to-do lists, our vision clouded by preconceptions. Brandon just sees things as they are, which makes him exceptional. Sometimes that helps him straddle or overcome borders, but it often leaves him on the outside looking in. I’ve known oddly gifted dyslexics and have been intrigued when dyslexics and autistics describe their mental process as “thinking in pictures.” Temple Grandin’s books explained to me how her autism makes it nearly impossible to socialize but gives her a big advantage in understanding animals. During this same research binge, videos of Andy Goldsworthy’s temporary landscape art gave me ideas on the sort of impromptu art Brandon might attempt while patrolling the border. The more I got to know him, the more appropriate it felt to put him at the center of this unusual setting and story.

Q: Brandon's father, Norm, is in danger of losing his farm, and his mother, Jeanette, in danger of losing her memory. It seems these two potential loses are related to a bigger sense of the loss of a way of life. As you write, " . . . 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." Are we as a country losing our memory?
A:
We have a short history and short memories to go with it, especially in the West where most people come from somewhere else and few families have been here for more than a few generations. What I was trying to capture with Norm was this sense that you can suddenly look around and find yourself stranded, left behind in yesterday’s America, which is how most family farmers have been feeling for years. Jeanette’s sudden dementia is a different, more personal loss, but carries a similar uneasy jolt that what you took for granted has already slipped away.

Q: Border Songs is populated by so many interesting people. Is there any one character in the novel you most identify with?
A:
I identify with them all to some degree -- with Wayne's irreverence, Madeline's recklessness, Sophie's curiosity, Brandon's fascination -- but Norm’s hopeful, worrying, temptation-addled mind made him the easiest character for me to climb inside.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers, and what's next for you?
A:
Ken Kesey, Ian McEwan, John Steinbeck, Joan Didon, Raymond Carver, Richard Price, Tom Robbins, Robert Penn Warren, Kent Haruf, etc.

I’m now researching a novel that I want to set in Seattle. I’d say more about it but I'd rather not jinx it.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“[Border Songs] has the kind of ambling, provincial whimsy found in Richard Russo's small-town tales and the hard-bitten optimism that colors Larry McMurtry's. . . . A gifted and original novelist.” —The New York Times

“Wonderfully quirky, all-too-human, tender and uproarious. . . .  His characters are achingly real and remarkably communal in their shared sense of one another. . . . This is a splendid, funny, remarkable novel.” —Providence Journal

“A beautifully written novel, hilarious and tender, with rich descriptive passages. . . . A joyful song to the survival of nature and the young at heart.” —The Washington Times
 
“Wonderful. . . .  Lynch portrays Brandon with such tenderness and humor that you can’t help but fall in love with him. . . .  Tender, sad and leavened with wit.” — The Washington Post

“One of the more inventive and unique novels of recent years. . . . A book that goes by all too quickly.” —The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
 
Border Songs charms. . . . An enjoyable portrait of life along our northern edge.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
Border Songs is a fable of innocence lost, or at least misplaced, and Brandon is one of the most remarkable characters created by a Northwest author in recent memory. . . . Lynch observes like a journalist and writes like a poet. . . . [He] brings a depth of knowledge and an attention to detail that should be the envy of more ivory-tower writers.” —The Seattle Times
 
“Beautifully written. . . . A wonderful story.” —Newark Star-Ledger
 
“A narrative tilt-a-whirl.” —The Plain Dealer
 
“It takes a special kind of wordsmith to create a character like Brandon—and, indeed, to craft his whole supporting cast, who are by turns ordinary and ornery (in a way that might remind you of Northern Exposure). . . . [Lynch’s] turns of phrase are as light as a feather, but so precise and purposeful that you’ll quickly find yourself buoyed by the vistas they show you.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
 
Border Songs sings. . . . Vanderkool is just one memorable character among many.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“Rich [and] imaginative. . . . Written with humor, striking imagery, and colorful characters, Border Songs is a winning novel that satirizes the United States government’s concern about terrorism and unsafe borders. . . . Quirky, funny, fresh, and lyrical, Border Songs will win over just about any reader.” —New West Book Review
 
“A sort of Empire Falls along the 49th parallel where failing farms and sleepy towns are being crowded out by tribal casinos and upscale subdivisions. [Border Songs] is fascinatingly close look at the confluence of small-town life, the global drug trade and illegal immigration, and it places Jim Lynch at the forefront of Northwest writers to watch.” —Willamette Week
 
“Delightful.” —The Dallas Morning News
 
“Enthralling. . . . A startling look at this country’s far Northwest corner with a compelling cast of oddballs. . . . Lynch’s deep empathy for his characters, no matter how off-kilter, is . . . powerful.” —The Daily Beast
 
“A free-ranging tale that brings together the world of pot, human smuggling, art and love like never before. There is humor and pathos, irony and genius in this intimate look at one community struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of 9/11.” —Grand Rapids Press
 
“[Border Songs’s] hero is an imaginative tour de force. Lynch’s comic borderland is not only palpable, it is richly metaphoric. Comparisons with Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins are not only inevitable, they are welcome.” —The Globe and Mail (Canada)
 
“[Lynch] tells his story with remarkably clear prose punctuated by a sort of well-informed wink at the ridiculous attitudes on both sides of the border.” —BookPage
 
“An unusual love story and a novel of hope.” —Daily American
 
“There’s no great mystery to Border Songs—just a slice of life in a small border town, with people confronted by problems they must find ways to fix. In Brandon Vanderkool, Jim Lynch has given us a delightfully memorable character. . . . A darned good read.” —Bookreporter
 
“With [an] unlikely hero and his supporting cast of odd ducks, author Lynch spins a tale that investigates how political posturing from on high affects the common folk, skewering the attitudes and cringe-worthy jingoism of the post-9/11 paranoia.” —The Bellingham Herald
 
“A wonderful and important read. . . . Lynch has a delightful satirical yet human touch in the way he tells us about this border culture, a subject rarely explored in literature.” —Vancouver Sun
 
“Marvelous, funny, and gentle.” —The Spokesman-Review
 
“Jim Lynch masterfully tiptoes the line between delicate observation and satire with unexpected humor, all the while following the coming of age story of an unlikely hero.” —The National Post (Canada)
 
“Whimsical, sensitive and full of heart. . . . The sense of place the author creates is only possible through humility, a slowed-down attentiveness and sensitivity to nature.” —Cascadia Weekly
 
“The quirky, colorful characters that populate Border Songs fill this book with charm, but it is misfit Brandon Vanderkool and his obsession with birds that enables the novel to take flight.” —Curled Up With a Good Book
 
“Jim Lynch’s new novel reads as an antidote to the 21st century: a kind of metaphorical insistence on hope and simplicity and art in the face of a surrounding storm.  Border Songs is a quietly ambitious book and it just gets better as it rises to the final satisfying image.” —Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

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.

About the Guide

Border Songs is the story of contrary destinies further complicated by the border that separates them.

Six foot eight and severely dyslexic, Brandon Vanderkool has always had an unusual perspective-which comes in handy once his father pushes him off their dairy farm and into the Border Patrol. He used to jump over the ditch into British Columbia but now is responsible for policing a thirty-mile stretch of this largely invisible boundary. Uncomfortable in this uniformed role, he indulges his passion for bird-watching and often finds not only an astonishing variety of species but also a great many smugglers hauling pot into Washington State, as well as potentially more dangerous illegals. What a decade before was a sleepy rural hinterland is now the front line of an escalating war on both drugs and terrorism.

Life on either side of the border is undergoing a similar transformation. Mountaintop mansions in Canada peer down into berry farms that might offer convenient routes into the budding American market, politicians clamor for increased security, surveillance cameras sprout up everywhere, and previously law-abiding citizens are tempted to turn a blind eye. Closer to home, Brandon's father battles disease in his herd, and his mother something far more frightening. Madeline Rousseau, who grew up right across the ditch, has seen her gardening skills turn lucrative, while her father keeps busy by replicating great past inventions, medicating himself and railing against imperialism. And overseeing all is the mysterious masseuse who knows everybody's secrets.

Rich in characters contending with a swiftly changing world and their own elusive hopes and dreams, Border Songs is at once comic and tender and momentous-a riveting portrait of a distinctive community, an extraordinary love story and fiction of the highest order.

About the Author

Jim Lynch lives with his family in Olympia, Washington. As a journalist, he has received the H. L. Mencken Award, among others. His first novel, The Highest Tide, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, appeared on several best-seller lists, and was adapted for the stage.

Discussion Guides

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)

Suggested Readings

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; Budding Prospects by T. C. Boyle; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  • Border Songs by Jim Lynch
  • July 13, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780307456267

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