Travel writer Porter Fox narrates the history of the United States' border with Canada along with his own experiences traveling the 4,000-mile trek over a three-year period of camping, hiking, and adventure.
Along the way he reacquaints us with some hallowed names in American history ... Fox is faithful to these figures, and to the ways their actions helped shape the United States and its northern border. But to his credit, he’s equally concerned with the consequences these men brought to the indigenous population, giving equal time to important leaders such as Sacagawea, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Northland is a respectable primer on the fraught ways history has been unkind, indeed criminal, to Indians. But it’s also a travelogue, complete with the adventures—and misadventures—of a man traversing what is, in many places, still absolute wilderness. Fox is an excellent guide, capturing the majesty of the Northland’s diverse geology, flora, weather and seasons ... But Fox’s greatest accomplishment is that he uses all of the landscape and history to capture the people who live and work on the border now. Fishermen, ship’s captains and crews, canoe guides, Indian activists, militia members—each is brought to life with respect, and taken together they serve as an excellent portrait of the contemporary United States, and all the challenges we face.
Fox’s trek along that border is chronicled in the keen-eyed and -eared Northland ... Fox can’t help but trespass pretty much all the way from the coast of Maine to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters as the border is poorly marked if long in the making (border negotiations stared right after the Treaty of Paris was signed), giving that touch of jump and sparkle that every good travelogue needs ... For all the hugeness of everything, Fox can be an intimately sharp observer of place, noting, for instance, that the northern cold makes light shine upward through the airborne frost and reduces the landscape to a charcoal sketch ... The remainder of Fox’s journey is as natty and crisp, and quite lighter of spirit than the [Standing Rock] reservation story. One comical episode has him trying to enter a little snaggle-tooth blip on the straight line to the coast along 49’40' or fight, a eensy piece of the U.S. protruding into Canada, but no way to get there except through Canada. The border patrols are deeply suspicious about why he wants to go to such an isolated spot. Then again, that is the leitmotif of the entire story.
Fox is an amiable, entertaining guide to the past and present of this porous, rugged border with Canada. While Northland touches on various political disputes related to Native American issues, oil and gas production, and fishing and water rights, it is more an engaging travel memoir that highlights the lives of those who dwell on our northern edge. Like the meandering border itself, Fox wanders down whatever path catches his interest.