The border between Canada and the United States is the longest in the world. After reading Porter Fox’s new book, I’m also convinced it’s one of the most interesting.
“On a map the boundary is a line. On land, it passes through impossible places — ravines, cliff bands, bogs, waterfalls, rocky summits, whitewater — that few people ever see.” In “Northland,” Fox does an excellent job of bringing this line into clear view by chronicling his own 4,000-mile voyage from the coast of Maine to the coast of Washington. He travels by canoe and Great Lakes freighter, by foot and by car. It’s a geography lesson, a history lesson and the story of the people who live now in the shadow of the past.
And what a past it is.
From the Ice Age, to the migrations and settlements of American Indians, to the first immigrants and the establishment of the great Northland cities, Fox writes with clarity and panache about this lengthy strip of land and water, and all the complicated ways it came to be.
Along the way he reacquaints us with some hallowed names in American history: Samuel de Champlain, Sieur de LaSalle, Gen. George Custer and Lewis and Clark, to name a few. Fox is faithful to these figures, and to the ways their actions helped shape the United States and its northern border. But to his credit, he’s equally concerned with the consequences these men brought to the indigenous population, giving equal time to important leaders such as Sacagawea, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. “Northland” is a respectable primer on the fraught ways history has been unkind, indeed criminal, to Indians.
But it’s also a travelogue, complete with the adventures — and misadventures — of a man traversing what is, in many places, still absolute wilderness. Fox is an excellent guide, capturing the majesty of the Northland’s diverse geology, flora, weather and seasons. Minnesota readers might be particularly interested in the chapters dealing with the Great Lakes, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Northwest Angle, all of which are given thorough consideration.
But Fox’s greatest accomplishment is that he uses all of the landscape and history to capture the people who live and work on the border now. Fishermen, ship’s captains and crews, canoe guides, Indian activists, militia members — each is brought to life with respect, and taken together they serve as an excellent portrait of the contemporary United States, and all the challenges we face.
It’s timely that a book about a U.S. border should come along at a moment in our history when the national conversation about borders is nearly ubiquitous. Whom should we let in? Whom should we force to leave? If it seems like the current discourse is particularly divisive, “Northland” is a powerful reminder that it has always been complicated.
Peter Geye is the Minnesota Book Award-winning author of “Wintering.”
Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America's Forgotten Border
By: Porter Fox.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 247 pages, $26.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 26, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.