Russell M. Brown

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 979

[For] the three characters who unify [A North American Education,] borders are … elusive things: they are hard to locate precisely, much less to cross. Blaise's characters are … eager to move onto new ground, but the passages are [hard] for them, the dividing lines … terrifyingly divisive, and the outcome unlooked-for disaster. Blaise's protagonists turn out to be "North American" men because in moving from America to Canada, they have come to exist on both sides of a border—they are not given definition and identity by either nation. One might say that Blaise's characters are, ultimately, not so much crossers of, as men who are themselves crossed by borders. The dislocation, displacement, and confusion that result from the move from one culture to another is exemplified in the fate of these three figures.

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Thibidault, Blaise's protagonist in the last of the three groups of stories in A North American Education, provides the most striking evidence of the perils of a North American life. (p. 163)

[If] his particularly "North American" heritage has given Thibidault and his family a special power—the ability to pass easily across borders—he pays dearly for it. His freedom from nationality leaves him utterly cut off from the people around him. Most people may find their borders less open, but they possess a familiar and identifiable culture to which they belong and from which they draw meaning. Thibidault is a man adrift. "What calamity made me a reader of back issues, defunct Atlases, and foreign grammars?" he asks—and in response cries out. "The loss, the loss!" It is no wonder that he appends to his account of his parents' move to America: "And so, loving our children, we murder them."… (p. 164)

The cost of having lost one's culture, of lacking all sense of belonging, is in fact the chief concern of the whole of A North American Education. In "Snow People," the last story, we see the calamitous consequences for Thibidault as a young boy living in Florida, uprooted from a French Canadian heritage which he remembers without understanding. His foreignness sets him apart: among his southern playmates he is both outcast and victim. He lives with his parents in a world that lacks familiar contours and readily comprehended patterns, and that comes to be dominated by a sense that disaster may strike at any time, unexpectedly and without meaning.

In such an existence, occasional encounters with a more comprehensible reality come in ways that make that lost familiarity even more mysterious and perplexing. A family of tourists from Quebec stops to ask directions, and Thibidault shifts from the southern dialect of the children around him into French and back again without realizing what he is doing. As later when he suddenly speaks French during a school geography lesson, he does not understand the nature of the linguistic boundary line that he has crossed…. When Thibidault's bilingual fluency earns him, not respect, but severe punishment from his teacher and, not admiration, but new misunderstanding and dislike from his friends ("… that's jist Yankee-talk," says one of them …), his North American education once again becomes one of how the world is prepared to punish him for the mistakes he has made without even knowing he has made them.

Alienation, in its most literal sense, the product of Thibidault's loss of clear boundaries, is also the source of Norman Dyer's discomforts in the opening stories. Dyer is a young American newly come to Canada who, in his job of teaching European immigrants to speak English in Canada's French-speaking province, is as much of a cultural outsider as it is possible to be…. The consequence of being a border-crosser is that one becomes just this kind of immigrant, missing the messages that are clear to those native to the territory. The penalty of being not merely an immigrant, but also a North American man without a country clearly one's own—like Dyer, like Thibidault—is greater still. It is to be always an immigrant, yet never clearly one.

In the middle group of stories in A North American Education, Blaise uses a third protagonist—Keeler—to investigate one alternative to a rootless existence on this continent: the finding of other more distant, and therefore more recognizable, borders. But … these new boundary lines also turn out to be hard to cross. In Europe, Keeler finds himself adrift in a continent of strangers, "a tourist,… the one thing he vowed not to be,"… and, whether seeking to re-establish an old relationship or considering a new one, Keeler becomes like Dyer in Montreal—uneasy, over-cautious, unsure of the values involved.

The most important of the Keeler stories, "Going to India," forms the literal and the thematic centre of the collection. Keeler begins a journey which, more than anywhere else, shows the terror that grips one upon confronting a border and the drawing back before the unknown world that lies beyond it. The trip contemplated in the story becomes more than a move from a familiar geographical location to another that stands in utter opposition and unfamiliarity: to travel from North America to India is not only to journey from West to East, but also—for Keeler as for Blaise—to move from the world of the husband to the almost incomprehensible one of the wife. Keeler prepares for this journey, undertakes it and, in the concluding lines, arrives at his destination—yet always with a deep inner dread, a fear that "'There are some thing a man can't take. Some changes are too great'."… (pp. 164-66)

One crosses all borders—whether into Canada, into India, or over the falls—in search of knowledge, but in Blaise's stories knowledge is gained through great pain, a dreadful knowledge, perhaps greater than we can contain. (p. 166)

Russell M. Brown, "Crossing Borders," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), No. 22, Summer, 1981, pp. 154-68.∗

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