It is a lament for what a broken immigration system does to families, and its final third is a riveting, heartbreaking exploration of one such case ... His lyrical asides about the border, from the history of its creation to quotations of poets who've written about it, are passionately delivered and speak to his urge to give nameless migrants an identity. But he spends less time scrutinizing the institutions that create the namelessness. His discussion of the Mexican government's bloody escalation of the war against the cartels only glancingly mentions the U.S. government's implication in it or the way border crackdowns only made crossing the border more expensive and risky.
The imperfection of Cantú's approach, though, mirrors the messiness of the crisis he's facing.
His subsequent confessions take the form of vignettes that range in length from a paragraph to several pages and mimic the desert landscape he patrols: haunting but elegant, with glimmers of humor for reprieve ... emotional ambiguity is the book’s chief flaw ... Call it soul-repair, call it atonement, but it is quenching indeed when Cantú turns this empathetic tide back to the migrants in the final section of the book ... The lines on the map have morphed into a river that nearly drowns him. The achievement of this book is how deftly Cantú reels us in, cold and wet behind him.
In an often raw and timely confessional, the former Fulbright fellow and Pushcart Prize winner paints a striking picture of the unsparing borderlands ... Cantú's writing is engaging and straightforward. At times, it is achingly lyrical ... Cantú's portrait of Mexico as the backdrop for border crossings comes to feel too unrelentingly bleak — all mutilated bodies, crushing poverty and crumbling towns. Some readers might lose patience with the author's conflicted feelings about a job he stuck with for years. But if they are interested in life on a border that has recently occupied an outsize role in policy debates, they will learn a lot.
The narrative plays out in such vignettes: tender, lyrical, and with a singular poise that is unsentimental and restrained, in prose as clear as desert air … Every statistic about human beings, Cantú tells himself, is a big number ‘times one.’ It becomes Cantú’s mantra as he rebuilds the humanity that he feels ground down in himself and his former colleagues by the bureaucratic toil and ‘moral injury’ of their work. It also finds expression in the story of José, Cantú’s times one and the subject of the moving last third of the book.
If the book ended in 2012, when Cantú left the Border Patrol, it would have been an enlightening but ultimately flawed work. Getting closer to a subject doesn’t always make it clearer, and if there is clarity, it can be the clarity that comes from seeing only a slice of the subject: step to the left or right, and the view dramatically changes. On the job, he sees many migrants but knows none, and they blur together to become yet another abstraction ... The final and most powerful section of the book occurs away from the border, when Cantú, now a graduate student and coffee barista, befriends José, an undocumented groundskeeper.
As Cantú tells us what he learned, he bolsters his point — that it’s hard to comprehend the border from books. This one challenges the reader to find the meaning, or some sense, in its loosely strung episodes, fragmentary encounters with border crossers and agents, clippings from books Cantú has read and the surreal dreams that haunt his fretful nights … Cantú recounts moments of tender connection with frightened, injured border crossers. But he seems unwilling to look too closely at his complicity in despicable behavior … The last third of the book, as José and his family desperately fight his deportation, with Cantú’s considerable help, makes a useful contribution to the literature of today’s border. It lays bare, in damning light, the casual brutality of the system, how unjust laws and private prisons and a militarized border have shattered families and mocked America’s myths about itself.
Francisco Cantú’s new memoir, The Line Becomes a River, veers away from propaganda and stereotypes and into the wild deserts and mountains, and, especially, the hearts and minds of the people who traverse the increasingly militarized borderlands. No one crosses unscathed, including Mr. Cantú … It’s rare to be given insight into the lives of the men and women who patrol our international borders, especially by a writer as gifted as Mr. Cantú … He becomes afflicted with nightmares of death, of missing bodies in the desert, and of his teeth crumbling into pieces. These passages, which are interspersed with dispatches from his daily patrol, are both beautifully written and terrifying. It’s fascinating to read how Mr. Cantú navigates such difficult physical and mental terrain.
...[a] powerful and timely memoir ... Cantú’s writing is spare, graceful, and full of the details that propel a good story ... Much appreciated is his ability to explain the complexities of his former job without demonizing those who do it ... Cantú interrupts occasionally to bring in the perspective of academics to illuminate his experience. These interludes often feel unnatural, interrupting a gripping human tale. His life on the line has made him the kind of expert we need to hear from.
It's surreal dialogue, the sort of thing that feels like a promise and only later turns out to be an omen. And like all Cantú's dialogue, it weaves in and out of paragraphs without quotation marks, so nothing interrupts the sense of someone relating a long and terrible dream ... The Line Becomes a River is caught halfway between memoir and tone poem, as Cantú offers snapshots of his life in and around the Border Patrol ... Cantú punctuates his brutal reminiscences with pointedly detached academic interludes, sketching some of the issues on each side of the border and bringing outside voices to his increasingly unsettled inner monologue ... The way Cantú navigates the deportation process is more direct than what comes before; this is a case study ... Beautifully written though the book is, it's a rough read ...a beautifully-crafted question; the answer has yet to be written.
Francisco Cantú’s quietly heartbreaking memoir The Line Becomes a River explores the reckless contours of the U.S.-Mexico border...comprised of journalistic dispatches and lyrical descriptions of troubling dreams and landscapes, is both intimate and unforgettable ... 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 ... 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.
Timely and thoughtful, Francisco Cantú's memoir puts a human face on the thousands of immigrants who cross the border illegally each month, and reveals the conflicting emotions of the Border Patrol agents who must try to stop them ... Ultimately Cantú — no fan of the horrors of drug cartels — acknowledges that the border has a purpose. But whether it's a line, a wall, or a gate, it will always beckon those searching for a better life.
Mr Cantú’s four years on the border provide stories from this no-man’s-land that mix compassion with quiet anger at the cruelty of man and nature. It is wild, untamed country where by night agents douse cacti in hand sanitiser and set them alight for the hell of it. But there is beauty in the desolation ... But as he immerses himself in the horror of the border, his own sanity frays. A wolf stalks his dreams. The focus gradually shifts from the vastness of the desert to the claustrophobia of Mr Cantú’s troubled mind ... For Mr Cantú, this wall is broken down when an undocumented friend is detained by the Border Patrol and subjected to its casual cruelties. His compelling, tragic account may help to break down the wall for others, too.
Without some striking detail to transfix us, the vignettes remain merely anecdotal ... A similar problem creeps into the writing. It’s a minor irony...that a landscape so sparse gives rise to a prose so lush ... The author is pressing too hard. He wants the moment to mean more than it does ... Even as Cantú’s 'dispatches' fail to give us a moving portrayal of the migrants’ lives, he succeeds in showing us the limits of an agent’s 'on the ground, in the field' perspective.
Through José’s story, Cantú comes to see the border crossers’ fierce resolve in the face of border police and brutal smuggling gangs as a defense of family and civilized values. Cantú’s rich prose and deep empathy make this an indispensable look at one of America’s most divisive issues.