The 1993* acclaimed short story “Borders” by Thomas King (Cherokee/Greek) is given a fresh visualization by Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan in the graphic novel of the same name. The snapshot story of three family members has been rendered in lively pen-and-wash panels easily accessible for younger readers while continuing to be poignant and relevant for an older audience. The graphic novel, with its sparse text and dialogue, manages to preserve much of King’s original text with its deliciously understated sense of irony. King’s dedication definitely sets the tone: “For the Blackfoot who understand that the border is a figment of someone else’s imagination.”

The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed young Blackfoot male who lives with his mother on the reserve in southern Alberta. Several years after his older sister, Laetitia, had moved to Salt Lake City, her mother decides to visit her, driving her son across the Canadian-American border. When her reply to her citizenship, “Blackfoot,” does not satisfy the border guards who will only accept either “Canadian” or “American”, she and her son are not allowed to enter. And, because her reply is the same as she attempts to return to Canada, the two are left in limbo in a tiny piece of real estate, the duty-free store on the Canadian side. At first it is an adventure for the young boy since the weather is fine and they have packed enough food to sustain them but soon the continual repetition of the attempted border crossings and sleeping in the car looses its appeal. His mother, however, is unyielding, insisting that her tribal identification must be acknowledged by both sides of the border.

The young boy’s musings provide flashbacks to Laetitia leaving home and the decision to visit her now. The flashbacks offer insights into the family dynamics and the individual personalities of the three family members, while the present situation illuminates the Indigenous experience of artificial political borders dividing the traditional lands. Because the young boy narrating the story is a naïve observer, the reader is drawn, without bias, into the ethical repercussions of the actions of both the mother and the guards on both sides of the border. The simple tale evokes empathy and, hopefully, insight into the ironic event.

Donovan’s illustrations and large panels amplify the massiveness of the Alberta prairie sky and the environment as well as the clinical coldness of the two borders in direct contrast to the warmth of the homes of the family on the reserve and Laetitia in Salt Lake City. This is an Alberta that I recognize as my own although I live further north from the border than the characters in this tale. The family members and Mel, from the duty-free store, are illustrated with affection and humour. The guards are also given distinct personalities, none of them malevolent.

Borders is an ageless story of family, belonging, identity, and justice and is related effectively and efficiently with the combination of the sparse text and visuals, the pacing, and layout of the pages. I highly recommend this graphic novel for people on both sides of the border. It is especially relevant today as First Nations people in Canada and the Native people in the United States continue to grapple with the ongoing lack of recognition by colonizers in both countries. It is marketed as a book for younger readers, but it will reverberate with readers of all ages. It is a great book for discussion and a must for both school and public libraries.

* “Borders” was first published in an earlier form in Saturday Night, December 1991. The acclaimed version of the story was first collected in One Good Story, That One, stories by Thomas King. (HarperCollins, 1993, 133-147.)

Borders
By Thomas King
Art by Natasha Donovan
Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9781443460675

Publisher Age Rating: ages 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Metis,

  • Gail

    | She/Her Professor, Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta

    Reviewer

    In addition to teaching at the School of Library and Information Studies (University of Alberta) where she is an adjunct professor, Gail tells stories and conducts workshops on a wide variety of topics across Canada and the United States. Each year she teaches the following courses for the University of Alberta. All of her courses are delivered online: Storytelling, Comic Books and Graphic Novels in School and Public Libraries, Canadian Children’s Literature for School and Public Libraries and Young Adult Literature. She also teaches a course on Indigenous Literature for the ATEP program (Aboriginal Teacher Education Program) at the University of Alberta. Gail is the award-winning author of nine books on storytelling and folklore in popular culture.

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