Jim Lynch's 'Border Songs' Looks at Quirky World of U.S.-Canadian Border

By Behe, Rege | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

Jim Lynch's 'Border Songs' Looks at Quirky World of U.S.-Canadian Border


Behe, Rege, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


In order to write his just-released novel "Border Songs," Jim Lynch had to be able to grasp intricacies of ornithology, sailing, dairy farming and the illegal production of cannabis.

Not to mention gain the trust of agents guarding the border between Washington state and Canada.

"It took me awhile to know the whole setting," Lynch says. "I spent a lot of time with border-patrol agents, riding along with them. It took awhile for them to start talking like they would normally talk."

Lynch also spent time with dairy farmers. He studied birding. Presumably, the other aspects of "Border Songs" came via experience or anecdote or imagination. It was the nuts-and-bolts writing that proved most difficult.

"The research and reporting is kind of the easier, more pleasurable end of it," says Lynch, who worked as a reporter in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., before turning to fiction.

"Border Songs" takes place along the 49th parallel, and Lynch's protagonist is one of those rare characters who seem to have no literary ancestors. Brandon Vanderkool is a gawky, hulking manchild, 6 foot 8 inches tall, dyslexic and seemingly simple. At the urging of his father, Norm, a dairy farmer, he's become a border-patrol agent. Unexpectedly, he excels at ferreting out those attempting to circumvent the border, using the same skills he uses to track downy woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos, chestnut-backed chickadees and brown creepers.

Lynch, whose first novel, "The Highest Tide," featured a protagonist two feet shorter than Brandon Vanderkool, says he didn't set out to create such an odd character.

"I thought of him as a very visual character in a very visual setting that required an acute awareness," Lynch says, adding that he enjoyed the challenge of going from a short protagonist to one who literally towers over people. "But it did take me awhile to find his voice, to be able to write the inner monologues that explain who he is, and to put him into action."

Brandon is joined by a cast that includes his mother, who is trying to stave off Alzheimer's disease; Madeleine Rousseau, a Canadian searching for her identity in a misguided way; her father, Wayne, who spars with Norm Vanderkool from his home just over the Canadian border about everything the United States does; and various border agents, and marijuana entrepreneurs.

They clash, they debate, they argue, and one of the themes that emerges in "Border Songs" is how people a few yards apart -- only a ditch separates the Vanderkools and the Rousseaus -- have such varying views of the world. …

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