Review: The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu


Picture credit:

Build a wall! Build a wall! Build a wall!

Erm…. even as an English person with very little knowledge of US politics I know that’s not a good idea. Fortunately, The Line Becomes a River really helped me to understand why.

The book is the real life account of a second generation Mexican American who goes to work for the Border Patrol Agency, stopping illegal immigration from Mexico to the US. As mentioned above I’m British with very little understanding of the situation, so I was totally unprepared for what I was about to read.

I’m not sure how much (unbiased) coverage immigration from Mexico gets in the US but I for one knew very little about it. All I’d seen is Donald Trump saying that Mexicans were rapists and drug dealers, and they were coming to America to expand their criminal operations. Naturally (like literally everything that is spewed forth from the mouth of The Donald) I’d assumed this was nonsense, but I had no concept of the reality. The Line Becomes a River really opened my eyes to what was going on, from the unique position of someone working to keep illegal immigrants out but who was also descended from the same cultural heritage.

I think the thing that struck me most about the entire immigration situation was the sheer danger of trying to cross the border illegally. I didn’t really think about the terrain (mountainous desert), the temperatures (high enough to kill you within a few hours if you don’t have adequate water/shade) or the sheer distance you would need to travel. I also knew nothing of the gangs who were utterly taking advantage of ordinary people by charging them ridiculous fees in exchange for smuggling them into the US – in other words, people trafficking – or the relationship between the gangs themselves and drugs, guns and other types of illegal activity.

What seemed utterly crazy to me was the deportation situation. Cantu describes immigrants who have lived and worked for thirty years in the US, paying taxes, marrying, having kids – who then get deported back to the country some of them haven’t seen since they were children. I couldn’t believe the rudimentary way that families were being ripped apart. Even looking from an economic perspective, the costs for deporting, say, the father of a family of four must be huge when you take into account the social, mental and monetary pressures that the remaining family members would be subjected to. That’s not to mention the ethics of taking away a father, role model, care giver and often primary earner from a young family. For what? And all because the country of birth box on the individual’s passport said “Mexico” and not “USA”. Crazy.

Some of the stories detailed in the book were truly terrifying. There were tales of finding bodies in the desert which had been executed by gangs, groups of immigrants dumped by the people traffickers and left to die, babies who had not survived the crossing, children unable to see their parents because they had made it through but the rest of their family hadn’t, kids visiting their dads in detention centres… there were so many people at risk and so many lives that were being destroyed.

I did appreciate that Cantu didn’t offer his own political opinions on the situation, but instead relied on telling the stories of the people that he encountered without bias. This allowed me the freedom to make my own mind up about what was going on.

It seemed to me that instead of trying to target the individuals trying to enter the US, there should be a crackdown on the illegal gangs and people traffickers. I appreciate this is easier said than done, especially when they live in a country such as Mexico where it seems relatively easy to pay your way out of trouble, but it has to be a better idea than building a wall. Not only would the terrain prohibit the wall from actually being built, the physical difficulties of policing the bloody thing would surely make the entire enterprise cost prohibitive? Couldn’t that money be put to better use?

Despite the shocking nature of the novel, I did struggle with the narrative flow. The first person perspective was interesting but Cantu obviously found his job very difficult, so the whole book was tinged with his own depression. It seemed to jump from one upsetting story to the next, with no hope and no solutions provided. I know that Cantu had to retain a professional distance from the people he encountered, but that lack of emotion in his writing really made the book quite lacklustre in places.

Overall, I’m glad that I read The Line Becomes a River as I feel much more aware of some of the issues that are happening on the border. However, the execution of turning these stories into a cohesive memoir could have been a lot better. In parts the book lacked pace and the writing often failed to grip me. Food for thought, but still quite disappointing.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.
A great, impartial, own voice viewpoint on a political hot potato let down by a dull narrative style.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #4 Read a book set in Central or South America written by a Central or South American author.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu

  1. This was very interesting to read. As you know, I’m also British, so I largely try to stay out of US domestic policies. But I definitely see your point on how it would be important to crack down on the people smugglers above all- because yes, they’re doing terrible things to people. Like you, I’m also unconvinced that a “wall” policy would necessarily work. It’s a real shame that the narrative style was so hard to follow though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m very aware that this was just one person’s experience of the situation, but the way that he included so many different perspectives made it very authentic. I think the book could have been much improved if there was more background to the people attempting to cross the border – their interactions were understandably quite limited with the border patrol agents. I’m sure some people will love it but it just wasn’t quite my cup of tea.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s too bad you found the narrative style lacking; this book sounds like it’s super interesting otherwise, so I may pick it up anyway. I’m not necessarily directly affected by the immigration issue, but as the child of a Mexican immigrant, and having lived near the border and in a northern city where many immigrants end up, my heart goes out to all the people who are suffering great dangers just to make as better life for themselves and their family. The conversation on immigration in this country has absolutely got to change, so I’m glad we’re at least starting to see more stories about. Hopefully there will be better written ones to come.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s