Borders Novel Summary and Themes

 Borders Summary and Themes

The narrative starts with the latter story when the narrator’s mother informs him they are going to visit Laetitia in Salt Lake City. The narrator then switches to the time before Laetitia’s departure. The narrator recalls the day Laetitia left Canada; he and his mother drive her to the US border. The family stops at a convenience store to buy coffee and soda, and the narrator’s mother is clearly upset by her daughter’s decision to leave. After leaving the convenience store, the family stops at an abandoned museum. The narrator’s mother tells him to check when the museum opens despite the building’s decay being a clear indicator that it is abandoned. The narrator notes that, as he lingered on the museum steps, he watched his mother and sister sit in the car and not exchange a word. Laetitia gets her belongings out of the car and walks the short distance from the museum to the border. The family waves to Laetitia and returns home. The narrator mentions that Laetitia sent them postcards regularly and appeared happy. In these correspondences, Laetitia suggests that her mother and brother come to visit, but her mother is visibly put off by that suggestion.

The narration switches to the Salt Lake City trip. The narrator is surprised when his mother starts to prepare to visit Laetitia. The narrator and his mother leave the reservation in Alberta for the border town of Coutts. They stop at the same convenience store they visited with Laetitia then drive toward the border station. The narrator notes that his mother drove abnormally slowly. At the border, a male border patrol officer approaches them and asks standard questions. When asked about her citizenship, the mother replies that she is Blackfoot. The border patrol officer asks her to repeat herself and, hearing the same answer, asks if she is Canadian. The mother affirms that she is Blackfoot and refuses to attach a colonial signifier (“Canadian” or “American”) to her identity.

The narrator thinks it would be simpler to say what the officer wants to hear and get on their way, but he knows his mother will not do that. The guard is not quick to anger and tries to reset the interaction, starting his greeting and questions from the beginning as if they have just pulled up at the gate. The mother again declares that they are Blackfoot. The guard instructs them to wait and goes to get another guard. The second guard acknowledges that there are Blackfoot citizens on the Canadian and American sides and that he just needs to know which side they are from for their records. The mother responds, “Blackfoot side” (136). The officers instruct them to come into a building, where they talk to a female officer named Inspector Pratt. Inspector Pratt acknowledges the tension between Indigenous nations and the settler-colonial state, saying, “I can understand how you feel about having to tell us your citizenship” (136). She offers to not write the information on the form but insists the mother tell her.

The narrator and his mother spend hours in the border patrol station because his mother will not give the officers the information they want. The narrator tries to tell Inspector Pratt that they are Canadian Blackfoot but, since he is a minor, she cannot take the information from him. Since the mother will not declare her citizenship in the way the officers want, the family is instructed to go back to Canada. The narrator is disappointed.

The narration switches back to the time before Laetitia left for the United States. The narrator reminisces about Laetitia and her then-boyfriend Lester talking about Salt Lake City, where Lester previously lived. While Lester and Laetitia are excitedly discussing moving to Salt Lake City, the mother interjects to tell them that everything they are looking for exists in Alberta, which is a common refrain for her character. The narrator notes that Laetitia and Lester broke up, but Laetitia continued to dream of Salt Lake City.

The story returns to the Salt Lake City trip timeline. The boy and his mother approach the Canadian border after the Americans turn them away. The same conversation takes place—the border patrol agent makes small talk, then asks about their citizenship. The mother simply responds “Blackfoot,” to which the border patrol officer replies that she must declare Canadian or American.

The narration switches again to the timeline before Laetitia left, noting that Laetitia sent away for a packet of Salt Lake City brochures. Her mother says, “That Salt Lake City place sounds too good to be true,” and “People in Salt Lake City are probably sending away for brochures of Calgary and Lethbridge and Pincher Creek right now” (139). These sentences continue the mother’s refrain that everything Laetitia finds exciting on the “other side” also exists at home—that home is special.

The narration returns to the Salt Lake City trip timeline. His mother speaks to the border patrol officers again and exits their office wordlessly, meaning no progress has been made on their border crossing. The mother and son drive toward the American border for a second time and spend the day wandering around the duty-free store, where they meet a shop owner named Mel. They sleep in their car and attempt another border crossing the next morning, but they experience the same line of questioning and spend another day in the duty-free store and parking lot.

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The unnamed narrator is a Canadian Blackfoot boy. Despite his role as the narrator, he is the deuteragonist—the second most important character in the story behind his mother. His family consists of his mother and his older sister Laetitia, who is about 10 years older than he is. From his conversation with the news reporters, we understand that he lives with his cousins and extended family on a reservation and seems to enjoy his life. The narrator spends most of the story describing the actions and motivations of other characters, particularly his mother and sister. The narrator is a static character in the sense that he is largely the same at the end of the story as he was at the beginning.

His focus on his mother and sister prevents him from being as developed as the other main characters. He is also young, and his personality is still developing. He is “seven or eight” when his sister leaves the reservation and “twelve or thirteen” when they visit her (131). At such a young age in both storylines, he finds himself caught between childhood ignorance and the realities of adulthood. He is also at an age when he is beginning to form his sense of identity, which is shaped by other expressions of identity in the text. His sister and mother model strong (if conflicting) senses of conviction, pride, and values. Other adults also model conflicting senses of value; this can be seen, for example, in Mel’s attitude toward their plight compared to the border patrol officers’. The narrator is at a crucial age for developing and expressing identity, and he is constantly subjected to conflicting models.

The narrator recognizes that his mother and sister have pride and suggests that he may someday develop that quality. He seems aware that the two women in his life are strong and have deep convictions, and he believes that he will naturally develop in these ways as well. His young age lends a sense of ambiguity as to how he will express his identity since his attitude toward the border crossing is different from his mother’s. The narrator seems much more willing than his mother to bend to the requirements of the system he inhabits—for example, he wants his mother to simply tell the officers they are Canadian Blackfoot so that they can continue on their way. This experience could impact him in different ways: he could develop the same adamance as his mother, having seen her prevail in the face of colonial power, or he could learn to say what authority figures want to hear for the sake of time and convenience.


The unnamed mother is a Canadian Blackfoot woman with two children, Laetitia and the unnamed narrator. The mother’s character is round in the sense that she has multifaceted motivations and perspectives that reveal themselves throughout the text. The mother is practical, critical, conservative, set in her ways, and has a deep well of stubbornness and pride. She would prefer to stay on the reservation and wants her children to do the same. The mother is also the primary mode of transportation throughout the book, which is ironic as she would rather stay on the reservation than venture into the outside world. Both storylines show the mother as a critical, practical, and unchanging person. The mother is the true protagonist of the story as in both narratives she struggles with personal and external conflicts that force her to make difficult decisions.

The first conflict is her daughter Laetitia’s decision to leave the reservation. The mother is critical of her daughter’s decision and her attraction to things outside the reservation. She criticizes her daughter’s decision to leave but is pleased that she left for “acceptable” reasons—for example, she was not pregnant and did not run off with a man. She constantly tells her daughter that anything exciting she finds in the outside world can be found near the reservation. It is unclear whether the mother’s dismissal of anything beyond the reservation stems from caution and experience or a deep-seated unwillingness to change. The mother eventually accepts her daughter’s decision given that Laetitia is unwavering in her convictions and sense of adventure. This fact is revealed at the beginning of the text when we learn that the mother eventually came to be proud of her daughter for her accomplishments.

The second conflict for the mother is with the border authorities. The mother identifies as Blackfoot, while those around her classify her as Canadian. The mother has likely lived with this tension for decades. We can see that she consistently asserts her Blackfoot identity in a world that wants her to assimilate. Through this conflict, we explore the mother’s deep sense of pride and unwillingness to bow to the demands of others. Like her daughter, she has profound convictions, but hers relate to personal identity, staying close to home, and Blackfoot culture. Despite her role as the protagonist, however, the mother does not have a transformational experience that shifts her character’s motivations or perspectives. If anything, her experiences seem to deepen her convictions and perspectives across both storylines.


Laetitia is the older sister of the unnamed narrator and the third main character of the book. Through the narrator, we learn that Laetitia is around 17 when she leaves the reservation and about 22 at the time that her brother and mother visit her in Salt Lake City. Laetitia’s main conflict is with her mother, who is critical of both her reasons for leaving and her excitement to see the outside world. Laetitia is adventurous, confident, decisive, and optimistic. She sees only positives in moving to Salt Lake City and decisively carries out her plan to start a life there.

Laetitia is the dynamic character in the story, both in her attitude and her role as a character. She is keen to explore the outside world, and her decisiveness moves the story outside of the reservation. Laetitia’s convictions allow her to take on the daunting adventure of moving to a new country. After a few years in Salt Lake City, Laetitia tells her mother that she is thinking of coming home to the reservation. Laetitia’s character has come full circle; she initially wanted to distance herself from the reservation, but she now understands the comfort of home and the cultural and communal value it holds for her.

Laetitia’s character is a foil to her mother. She is not the antagonist of the story in the sense of being a villain, but she is an antagonist in that her actions and perspective force change and movement in the story. Laetitia’s obstinance forces her mother to venture outside the reservation, soften her critical perspective on her daughter’s choice to move away, and draw attention to Indigenous rights.


Inspector Pratt, a secondary character, is a female border patrol officer who talks to the narrator and his mother. She is the third law enforcement officer the mother and son encounter, and she seems to be the most respectful and willing to help. Inspector Pratt is different from the other officers in two key ways: she explains in a respectful way why they are requesting such information, and she seems to understand the conflict the mother feels about expressing her nationality. Inspector Pratt also differs from the other officers in that she treats the narrator and his mother with dignity and kindness.

Inspector Pratt explains how the border patrol officers record and use information in a genuine attempt to convey why the mother is being forced to declare her citizenship. When this does not work, she appeals to the mother on a personal level. She seems to be the only law enforcement officer who understands the mother’s conflict regarding citizenship. She tells the mother that she understands why this is difficult for her and offers an alternative: the mother can just say it to her quietly, and it never has to go on the form. Inspector Pratt’s ability to identify with the mother leads her to find wiggle room in the policy. Despite Inspector Pratt’s attempts to circumvent the policy, she is unable to extract the information she needs from the mother.

Inspector Pratt’s kind treatment of the narrator and his mother is partly self-serving in that she seeks to uphold the policies and governments that prevent them from crossing the border. She represents many law enforcement officers who use kindness to enforce potentially dehumanizing policies of identity, citizenship, and status. These officers may view people as capable human beings worthy of respect, but their job dictates that they uphold policies set by governmental agencies. The mismatch between individual beliefs and official responsibilities can cause internal conflict for the officers tasked with enforcing these policies.


Mel, another secondary character, is the manager of the duty-free store between the US and Canada. The narrator and his mother become acquainted with Mel on their first day between the borders, and their relationship becomes deeper throughout the story. At first, Mel is neutral if not dismissive toward the boy and his mother. As Mel learns more about their situation, however, he begins to reveal a progressive attitude toward Indigenous rights. He first expresses disbelief that the border patrol won’t let them through. For those who are not negatively impacted by colonialism, it can be difficult to believe that people have such terrible experiences. Like many other Canadians and Americans, Mel’s identity and status shield him from colonial violence. Mel tells them that “justice is a hard thing to get, but that [they] shouldn’t give up,” and that the mother is “an inspiration to us all” (144).

Like many Americans and Canadians, Mel believes that the mother and her son are entitled to their rights and that their fight is a just cause. Unfortunately, Mel’s attitude represents an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward Indigenous issues. Mel does not express his support for their cause until he is confronted with injustice against people he knows and believes to be good. For non-Indigenous people who are not engaged in daily struggles against colonialism, the issues are less visible. They lack awareness about these populations and what they might be experiencing.



King’s work explores how identity and citizenship overlap with law, and this conflict is central in the mother and son’s trip to Salt Lake City. The story addresses the intersection of identity and policy on both an individual and a societal scale. This theme is the most overarching in the text and is explored through the conflict between individual characters and institutions. King weaves individual and societal experiences of identity throughout the text.

The individual scale of identity is represented in personal ideas of status and citizenship. For example, the mother’s sense of identity centers on her Blackfoot citizenship, and she does not consider herself to be attached to the nation of Canada. This view directly contradicts the societal identity upheld by law enforcement officers and other authority figures. On the societal scale of identity, Indigenous groups are forced to identify with colonial nations. The mother must specify whether she is Canadian or American because these are the identifiers the border patrol officers deem valid. The societal scale does not recognize the validity of Indigenous identity.

Some characters have a deeper understanding than others of the complexities of identity. For example, Inspector Pratt is the only border patrol officer who seems to understand the mother’s conflict, and she tries to skirt the citizenship policy. The narrative also reveals that institutions are not designed to deal with these nuances. Those who work in these institutions, like Inspector Pratt, have little flexibility to account for complex identities. Inspector Pratt, much like the mother and son, is powerless in the face of institutions and bureaucracy, which end up hurting both parties. The mother and son cannot cross the border, and Inspector Pratt cannot put compassion into action.


The narrator’s mother and Laetitia have equally deep but different senses of pride. The narrator also suggests that someday he will develop pride and identity. One of the central conflicts in the text stems from the different senses of pride in the mother and daughter. The narrator suggests that the events in this story will also have a tangible impact on his own sense of pride.

The theme is mostly explored through the mother’s character. Through her pride, we can understand larger issues of identity. The first hint of the mother’s pride comes on the first page of the text, where we learn that despite her vocal objection to her daughter’s decisions, she eventually feels a sense of gratification for her child. The mother also reveals her sense of self-esteem in the passage by pointing out that at least her daughter hadn’t gone with some man or been pregnant. Laetitia’s decision to leave as she left did not reflect poorly on her mother. The mother’s attention to appearance is shown when she and her son dress nicely to cross the border. In addition to the mother’s self-respect for her family and their choices, she also has a deep sense of pride in her identity and culture. This is made explicit by her refusal to bow to the demands of the border patrol officers even though it causes conflict.

The conflict between the mother and daughter is central in both storylines. The mother’s pride leads her to stay close to the reservation, honor her Blackfoot culture, and not compromise her identity and citizenship. The daughter’s self-regard leads her to take a leap of faith into the unknown and establish her independence through will and conviction.


Throughout the text, the mother insists that everything Laetitia finds appealing about Salt Lake City or the outside world can be found in Alberta near the reservation. She appears torn between frustration at her daughter’s free-spiritedness and confusion as to why she would seek things that already exist close to home. This theme is mostly revealed through her dialogue.

For example, the mother comments that Salt Lake City “sounds too good to be true” (139). This passage helps us understand the darker facets of the mother’s character—she is pessimistic, critical, and perhaps has experienced kinds of trauma that she wants to protect her children from. Her resulting distrustfulness of the outside world causes her to constantly fault her daughter’s free-spiritedness.

The mother distrusts the outside world and feels a sense of security and kinship on the reservation. The mother’s apprehension leads her to see her daughter’s plans as not only misguided but dangerous. The mother is not wrong to fear for Laetitia’s safety—Indigenous women and girls make up a disproportionately large percentage of missing persons in Canada. And media attention to their cases is scarce and prejudiced. Laetitia’s adventurousness may seem commendable, but the mother is more interested in her daughter’s safety than her independence. The mother’s fear for her daughter’s safety represents the dynamics between many parents and their children, but the specific context of missing and murdered Indigenous women makes this fear deeper for the mother.


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