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  • Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories
  • Dirk Hoerder
Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories. Benjamin H. Johnson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 373, US$89.95 (cloth), US$24.95 (paper)

Bridging National Borders in North America is part of the growing and exciting field of borderland studies, which emphasize that, contrary to national and nationalist stories once called master narratives, neither human lives nor economies end at political borders. Even border-imposing states reach beyond, by 'off-shore' entry barriers, in the case of the United States at Mexico's southern border or Hong Kong airport. This anthology of ten essays, emerging from co-operation between Southern Methodist and Simon Fraser universities, provides perspectives on both North American land borders — a great asset. The focus on land borders creates one problem: it leaves out the Caribbean, which, even if a bridge itself, is also part of North America. Topics cover the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth and tilt toward western regions.

Edgar W. McInnis noted in 1942 that none of North America's 'political divisions explain themselves,' no physical features 'explain why the division lies where it does — or, indeed, why there is a division at all.' But scholars (affirmers?) have remained ensconced in national tales and, as the editors point out, many maps of one country end at its borders without showing neighbouring states: an orphan view of polities. In the introduction, which leaves little for a reviewer to add or critique, the editors emphasize that 'the' border, in each case, is many borders: impact varies by region, whether between the Texas-Tamaulipas and the Sonora-Arizona section or between the five cultural-ecological regions of Canada and similar ones in the United States. They emphasize that the over-exploited us frontier thesis (Turner 1893) overlooks, perhaps intentionally so, the Greater Southwest (or, viewed from Mexico, Northwest) as a second vast frontier region (Bolton 1921). Transnational history, empirically grounded, becomes trans-regional history. [End Page 351]

The first of the volume's four sections deals with 'Peoples In Between': the making of the Texas-Mexico border society and the trans-border Metis society in the north — the Metis perhaps as much short-changed in traditional Canadian national narrations as Mexicans in us writing. For both peoples the border created problems and disrupted life-ways — it was a festering sore rather than an 'undefended' line proudly to be proclaimed to the world. On the other hand, Native peoples, in some cases, could by crossing the line protect themselves against one state's military.

The second part, 'Environmental Control and State-Making,' approaches human and economic issues: attempts to impose control over allegedly germ-carrying Native border crossers (a concern directed at the Atlantic ports against 'lesser Europeans,' whether Irish or 'Slavs'); attempts to prevent range cattle from crossing the topographically artificial lines; and attempts to protect salmon stocks when interests differed between fishing industries on the two sides. To local players the borders often appear as lines drawn by (eastern) centres of power through regional considered hinterlands: the Canadian hinterland-approach permits more focused analysis than the American frontier-paean.

'Border Enforcement and Contestation' (part 3) continues this theme: national governments demand control (under the dated concept of fusion of state and territory established for time-specific purposes in the mid-seventeenth-century Westphalian state system); borderland residents want, and the viability of their economies demand, facilitation of crossing. Excluded migrants from Asia could use the 'transit privilege' of international law to land in Mexico (which did not follow us policies) or, for a brief time, in Canada (until it did follow the us lead) and legally cross into the United States.

The authors of the final part, 'Border Representations and National Identity,' discuss the tensions between nation-building images of a country / national character and economic interests. Nationally unwanted clichés may be instrumentalized and strengthened by tourist agencies and industries. Stateside propagated Mexican identity, for example, was undercut by marketing campaigns to sell Mexican destinations to dollar-carrying visitors. The last essay takes historians to...


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