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Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border

by Jacques Poitras

Most modern North American works of political science and political history – both academic and popular – focus on two interrelated themes: security and sovereignty. Added to those preoccupations in the decade since 9/11 is an obsession with, and often fear of, the foreign. But these theoretical tomes tend to overlook the realities of daily life. This is the central thesis of Imaginary Line, an exploration of the stretch of border separating New Brunswick and Maine, two territories that, as Jacques Poitras notes in one of the book’s many on-the-money statements, are “so deeply linked by history, blood, and trade that they would not be able to extricate themselves from the relationship if they wanted to.”

Poitras, a reporter for CBC Radio, travels along and across this oft-contested and porous border, exploring the region’s shared history, characteristics, and secrets. The stories that emerge are told with a local’s authority and keen eye for detail, bolstered by an astounding depth of historical research, and spiced with a delightful helping of the criminal and absurd. What Poitras shows us is a land arbitrarily split in two, ruled by far-flung governments, and inhabited by people (native and European) who have persevered through entrepreneurship, cooperation, and simple stubbornness. It is also an isolated region, struggling with modernity, onto which Poitras grafts a recognizably human face: the citizens of dying towns bypassed by new highways, livelihoods reliant on the vagaries of the cross-border energy trade, and a populace forced to deal with a monolithic post-9/11 security infrastructure.

Imaginary Line is a unique study of a unique place. But the uniqueness of the subject matter is also the book’s main drawback. No amount of engaging writing can make up for the fact that this is a regional work, meaning that for some readers – especially those hunting for broader political commentary – parts of the reportage and much of the history might seem too parochial or tangential. But for those willing to overlook this provincialism (and those for whom that is precisely the book’s appeal), Poitras’ narrative shows that while a line on a map might literally be imaginary, in practice, and for better or worse, it can be very real.