Review of Borders in Paradise
James White’s Borders in Paradise opens in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow in West Hollywood, California. The year is 1939. The tiny bungalow is the Gaines family’s version of paradise, after twenty-two-year old Juno (John) and his brother Chassy (Charles) “ran away from that den of thieves and malcontents in Texas to start a new life in California”–the den of thieves and malcontents being their extended family, of course. Their mother and sister Anita (Neet) join them shortly thereafter.
The novel is divided into four parts, with several changes in narrative stance to provide the reader with multiple perspectives on the Gaines family dynamics and the brothers’ coming-of- age struggles.
Part I is narrated in first-person, alternating between Juno and Chassy. Given the resentment Juno expresses toward his “tall, blond, and handsome” younger brother, alternating first-person narration between the two of them was a wise choice on White’s part. Is Chassy as irresponsible and selfish as Juno says, or does the root of Juno’s discontent really lie elsewhere?
Chassy immediately gets himself ensnared in an ill-advised marriage with a young woman from a well-to-do family who works hard to smooth over his Texas roughness. When Chassy realizes that she has had an ulterior motive from the start, he reacts badly and has to beat feet out of town. He joins the US Border Patrol, where he is blown far from paradise to the Arizona desert.
Parts II and III are in third-person from Chassy’s point of view. He is referred to in these two sections as Charles, reinforcing the need–if not his own desire–to extricate himself from his youthful mistakes and forge some kind of future for himself. By the end of Part III, the Draft Board and another ill-advised encounter with a woman put that future in question. Part IV is narrated by Juno in first-person to bring the novel full-circle to its surprising and satisfying conclusion.
Ultimately, Borders in Paradise is a novel about belonging and personal identity, with family, lovers, and even the government all working to make us over into someone we’re not sure we want to be. The question is, when we finally come to that realization, will it be too late? In the case of the Gaines brothers, you will have to read the book to find out. I would strongly encourage you to do so!
From the Author
As for inspiration, Borders in Paradise was inspired by a collection of family letters, spanning from 1905 to a few years after 1947 when I was born. I found them while cleaning out my father’s apartment after he died. 511 letters all in a jumble, stuffed into grocery sacks. I spent two years organizing them, then annotating and finally transcribing every hand-written line to digital files. It was a transforming experience learning about my father’s family and getting familiar with everyday life on ranch land in central Texas during the depression.
Most of Borders in Paradise is fictional, but my father and his brother did run away to California as boys and later encouraged their sister and mother to join them. All of the major segments in the story are based on actual events I either heard about around the dinner table or gleaned from the letters.
Currently, I’m writing a prequel to Borders in Paradise, covering the boys’ early years in Texas and their trip to California.