Gillian Roberts, ed. Reading between the Borderlines: Cultural Production and Consumption across the 49th Parallel (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2018), 336 pp.
In light of the many books in recent years in the field of transnational and comparative North American Studies, Gillian Roberts’s collection of eleven contributions is a valuable addition that complements new journals such as the quarterly Comparative American Studies: An International Journal (2003–) and the open-access Journal of Transnational American Studies (2009–). The field is still in its infancy and marked by different national and international traditions of scholarship (Ingram 353-54), which is also reflected in how this volume contains exclusively North American and British contributors. The essays expand on work presented at the conference “Cultural Crossings: Production, Consumption, and Reception,” hosted at the University of Nottingham in June 2014, as part of the activities of the Culture and the Canada-U.S. Border (CCUSB) international research network funded by the Leverhulme Trust from 2012 to 2015.
In her knowledgeable and extensive introduction, subtitled “Negotiating Material Citizenship,” Roberts surveys recent scholarship and lays out the concerns of the collection. She cites Jody Berland’s claim that what Canadians refer to metonymically as the “49th parallel” occupies great symbolic status; for the United States, by contrast, it is the border to the south, towards Mexico, that has always mattered most. Roberts emphasizes that the “Canada-US border has loomed large in discussions of Canadian culture, particularly its perceived vulnerability to US culture seeping through” (5; see also Berland). The collection sets out to correct previous scholarship informed by the notion of the border as a “one-way mirror” (10).
The fault with that notion is made particularly clear in Richard Sutherland’s contribution “Music within Bounds: Distribution, Borders, and the Canadian Recording Industry” (ch. 3). Sutherland takes up a thought from an earlier article, namely, that “the United States [is] the largest market for Canadian music” (10; see also Sutherland and Straw). Similar influences are pointed out in Roberts’s “Cross-Border Film Adaptation and Life of Pi” (ch. 8). Yann Martel, the Québécois author of Life of Pi, is at the heart also of Zalfa Feghali’s concluding analysis of Martel’s 101 Letters to a Prime Minister (2012) in relation to Canadian and U.S. literature (ch. 11 “‘We Have to Get Along with Others’: Cosmopolitanism and Cross-Border Literary History,” a contribution fittingly placed at the end of the volume since it goes beyond the framework of North American studies). All contributions are well researched, though some lack introductory and concluding discussions that would help situate their specialist topics in a wider context.
The volume touches upon questions of migration across the Canada-U.S. border, citizenship, national identities, nationalism, gender, and slavery. The essays are grouped into three parts with three to four essays each: “Cross-Border Cultural Production: Historical Processes” (Part 1), “Beyond the Border: Ideals and Realities of Transnational Cultural Work” (Part 2), and “Cross-Border Reading” (Part 3). They address and reevaluate Canadian culture in light of dependency theory and U.S.-American cultural dominance. The contributions survey a broad field of cultural activities related to the editor’s initial thesis.
While one may appreciate the rectification of previous biases in scholarship to which this volume undoubtedly contributes, readers may find the apologetic nature of the endeavor confusing. Missing from the collection is a clear editorial rationale behind the choice of topics, which leads one to ask why certain topics are conspicuously absent—most notably, the history of Native American and First Nation residential and boarding schools and the cultural and historical revisionism these schools have sparked in diverse ways on both sides of the 49th parallel in recent years. And yet this topic represents the dynamics and differences the volume seeks to investigate at a deep political, historical, cultural, and even religious level. In her introduction, Roberts acknowledges that in Indigenous contexts, “the Canada-US border figures as a settler-colonial scar bisecting Indigenous territories” (15), yet the focus is clearly on Canadian First Nations (319; see also McCall, Reder, and Anderson). In this vein, Lee Easton and Kelly Hewson argue convincingly in “Heroes, Borders, and Canadian Culture: The Superman Reclamation Project” that, in contrast to the United States, in Canada Indigeneity is sometimes appealed to in cultural fields (ch. 4), and Roberts herself justly calls for a volume on how the border affects Indigenous cultural production (14). While it is moot to object to topics not addressed in an edited collection, it is not inappropriate to call for greater justification or contextualization. In this light, some readers may respond critically to the overt focus on popular mainstream (and contemporary) culture and the volume’s questionable historical selectiveness, which ignores everything prior to the nineteenth century (27). The main focus is on cultural developments since the mid-twentieth century. This choice should have been explained and also reflected in the title of the volume.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the volume is that it addresses recent developments with attention to a broad range of different media (including print, periodicals, film, music, digital). Despite my critique, the collection is impeccably edited and well-written. It offers chapter summaries in the introduction (22-27), individual chapter endnotes, and detailed bibliographies at the end of each chapter, and a useful index (315-25). However, footnotes and a summary bibliography would have been a useful addition. The book is available in electronic and print form. Its wide-ranging contributions make it a mandatory addition to any library concerned with North American (specifically Canadian and U.S. American) studies.
Philipp Reisner (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)