STARRED REVIEW
February 06, 2018

A memoir of boundaries blurred

By Francisco Cantú
Review by

Francisco Cantú’s quietly heartbreaking memoir The Line Becomes a River explores the reckless contours of the U.S.-Mexico border, a place Cantú first knew through memory (as the grandson of a migrant), then through higher learning (as he studied international relations in college), then through his profession (as a border patrol agent), and finally, through poetic recounting (as a witness to and chronicler of the border). The Line Becomes a River, comprised of journalistic dispatches and lyrical descriptions of troubling dreams and volcanic landscapes, is both intimate and unforgettable.

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Francisco Cantú’s quietly heartbreaking memoir The Line Becomes a River explores the reckless contours of the U.S.-Mexico border, a place Cantú first knew through memory (as the grandson of a migrant), then through higher learning (as he studied international relations in college), then through his profession (as a border patrol agent) and finally, through poetic recounting (as a witness to and chronicler of the border). The Line Becomes a River, comprised of journalistic dispatches and lyrical descriptions of troubling dreams and landscapes, is both intimate and unforgettable.

The memoir opens as Cantú enlists in the border patrol. His mother, part confidant and part prophet, warns him of the dangers of associating with the institution. She doesn’t understand Cantú’s attraction to the role; she is uneasy and fearful. Cantú, both brash and compassionate, argues in favor of the career: As a Spanish speaker, he can be of real service to the migrants; as someone curious about the border, he can finally peer into the everyday confrontations that unfold there.

But the everyday confrontations are horrible and mundane: a dead man’s body left to decompose overnight, dope hauls and the attendant paperwork, starry skyscapes that hang uneasily over enemies hiding from each other in dark mountains. Cantú is forever changed by this work, and while he becomes good at it, he finds he cannot see it through. Even after he leaves, he is haunted. He writes, “I often recognized the subtle mark left by the crossing of the border, an understanding of its physical and abstract dimensions, a lingering impression of its weight.” This memoir—already much acclaimed and the winner of the prestigious Whiting Award—helps readers see the border as Cantú does, a place full of ambiguity and danger, a place hidden in plain sight, a place Americans should try to see.

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The Line Becomes a River

The Line Becomes a River

By Francisco Cantú
Riverhead
ISBN 9780735217713

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