Rookie Border Patrol agent Brandon Vanderkool is a quarter-inch over six-eight and weighs 232 pounds. He’s gawky, dyslexic, and has a unique way with words: “Let your hands see me,” he tells smugglers. He reluctantly roams a thirty-mile stretch of the border between Washington and British Columbia on the lookout for drug runners, illegal immigrants, and his beloved birds. In times of stress, he imitates birdcalls and imagines himself as a bird, even when apprehending the bad guys.
However, despite his oddities (or perhaps because of them), Brandon is one of the Border Patrol’s most successful agents. His keen eye spots all kinds of riffraff, contraband and wildlife:
“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.”
Things are changing in this border region as drug money takes over and farmers are offered money in exchange for safe passage for illegals. Lynch effectively plays up today’s climate of fear – fear of drugs, fear of terrorism, fear of others: “Grandmas in RVs are potential smugglers. Everyone’s a suspect.” The Border Patrol steps up its guard and surveillance cameras keep a watchful eye over everything. These are troubled times. It’s worse for Madeline, Brandon’s childhood pal and love interest, who is a marijuana harvester.
While Brandon’s career is on the rise, his father, Norm, is struggling in his. His dairy farm isn’t doing too well, and he regrets not having sold off his herd and converting his fields into raspberries as everyone else seems to have done. His wife, Jeanette, is losing her memory and becoming increasingly disconnected from today; the sailboat he’s been working on for eleven years is still languishing in the yard. Often his mind turns to his neighbor Sophie Winslow, “the masseuse who seemingly everyone visited but nobody knew” and about whom rumors are rife: “She was a former stewardess. No, a dental hygienist. She came from eastern money, right? Actually, a horse farm in Indiana. Or was it Austin?”
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. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region are beautiful, even magical, while Brandon’s innocence is sweet and irresistible in today’s shady conditions. It is refreshing to see the world through his eyes, and it makes one appreciate the simpler things in life. While this is very much a character-driven novel, Border Songs is also a topical reminder of the occasional absurdities of the over-cautious ambience of today.