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Northland

A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border

Once again, I’ve found a wonderful nonfiction book that reads like turning pages in an album of photographs. This time, the author decided to explore an unfamiliar landscape and to write snapshots of what he sees along the way. At the same time, he is reading and researching about the scenes, so he not only can describe the men and women he encounters on his travels, but he can also bring relevant historic figures to life. The result is Northland, Porter Fox’s very successful narration of his “4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border,” the boundary that separates the United States from its neighbor to the north.

 

Border map

Fox divides his narrative into five forays. The first encounter is with Maine; the second, with the Great Lakes; the third, with Minnesota’s Boundary Waters; the fourth, with the Dakotas; and the fifth, with what he calls “The Medicine Line,” Montana to the Pacific, as close to the Canadian border as possible. In each case, he makes no attempt to be all-inclusive. Instead, he describes just a few interactions with each locale. Physically, he canoes, hitches rides on fishing boats and cargo ships, drives long distances, and hikes. Mentally, he immerses himself in the history, focusing on those entrepreneurs who first explored the territory and then settled the land.

Much to my delight, he gives Native Americans full credit for being there first, and he thoughtfully explains what various northern tribes have endured over the centuries and still struggle with today. In the Dakotas, for example, he joins the Standing Rock protestors, reconstructs the Sioux history of the area, and learns precisely what the protestors have had to endure. He clearly conveys the nomadic nature of tribes all across the northland, and he just as clearly understands the contradictory difficulties of sedentary reservation life.

Fox grew up in Maine, where the border between Canada and the United States has always been permeable. One impetus of his Northland trek was to see how post-9/11 policies have affected border policies today. News accounts tend to focus on our country’s border with Mexico, but our border with Canada is also fraught with armed patrols and legal complexities. With many Canadian relatives, I’ve spent a fair amount exploring the northland myself. So I was both intrigued and horrified by the barriers—psychological as well as physical—now erected between the two sovereign nations.

Because Fox is a native “down easter,” he is more familiar with the eastern part of his journey. He travels more slowly and his writing is more intimate. As he moves west, especially in the final chapter of Northland, he moves more quickly and his writing is more experiential and more visual. Driving with Fox across the breadth of Montana, the reader sees exactly what Fox is seeing for the first time and experiences every empty highway mile. I liked the way Fox’s narrative changed from east to west, from the hands-on experience of trawling for sea urchins to the more abstract slithering over ruts and rivulets while peering through a rain-soaked windshield. When I began Northland, I wondered how Fox could compress so much territory into a two-hundred-and-fifty-page book. Not only so much territory but also so much history and so many personal interactions along the way. Fox does so by utilizing the photographic method, those individual snapshots of people and places caught in a moment of time. And he does so very well indeed.  –  Ann Ronald

Also available by Porter Fox: Deep; The Last Winter.

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