Border Songs looks at life on the 49th parallel

Published on Tue, Nov 24, 2009 by Margot Griffiths

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For the book lovers on your list, a Christmas present extraordinaire – a novel set in Blaine. In Border Songs, author Jim Lynch tells an outstanding story about the once sleepy town, whose main vice was an adult book store.

Now that town is home to a pivotal border where pot smugglers and terrorists have the populace on red alert.
Lynch’s first novel, The Highest Tide, was an award winning best seller, adapted for the stage. Border Songs shows equal promise.

Lynch’s characters are the highlight of this story. They’re quirky, they’re downtrodden, they’re hilariously eclectic. And the pathos of the central character, Brandon Vanderkool, anchors this remarkable cast.

Not at all cool, Brandon is a 6’8” 20-something, who wants nothing more than to milk the cows on the family dairy farm. But his father wants more for his son, and pushes Brandon into joining the Border Patrol.

The ditch between two countries that he once jumped as a kid, he now watches for drug smugglers and worse.
How someone so severely dyslexic manages his job puts some strain on credibility, but that is soon absorbed by the pull of the plot, and eventually it all becomes stunningly clear.

Brandon, the proverbial gentle giant, is on the job at dawn in too small shoes. (Size 19 is the biggest the government has on offer.) But what he really wants, as the sun breaks over the mountains in the east, is to hear the morning chorus of birds.

An artist, a sculpture and a birder, Brandon “looks forward to the Christmas bird count more than Christmas itself.”
On a good day, he can spot 63 different species before breakfast.

With his remarkable powers of observation, he seems to “see everything at a glance”– an ability that allows him to spot smugglers with equal ease.

And what Brandon sees is a pretty fascinating look at what’s going on under the noses of the locals, as B.C. bud claims the honor of being the world’s best weed.

Brandon also sees his father slowly losing his dairy herd to a mysterious ailment (bovine flu?), and his bright, sensitive mother slowly losing her mind.

Meanwhile, back on a ranch across the border, just a ditch away, Madeleine Rousseau’s green thumb is bearing financial fruit. Her father, a retired UBC professor, keeps up a leftist rant that grows more rabid by the hour. Smoking “medical marijuana” in plain sight of the Border Patrol makes his day. And then there’s the masseuse whose psychic powers are a match for Brandon’s when something’s awry on the 49th.

Though border dramas ignite this story, there’s a deeper message here – one that connects the reader to universals like family, loyalty, the budding of new love and above all, the healing power of nature.

Lynch’s prose is laden with descriptions of the natural world, yet he still manages to keep it lean, in service of the plot. He also has a keen eye for the details of Blaine. When he describes driving down H Street hill and crossing the railroad tracks to watch the birds circle the marina in Semiahmoo Bay, there’s a thrill of recognition.

When a writer this talented chooses our little neck of the woods, it’s a gift ­– one worth sharing this Christmas.
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