Ep. 88 Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli — The Stacks Book Club (Ayser Salman)

Today on The Stacks Book Club we discuss Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli, a book that looks at the immigration crisis at the US/Mexico border for the children who make the journey unaccompanied. Our guest Ayser Salman (The Wrong End of the Table) joins the show to talk about empathy, the language around immigration, and what we can do to help.
There are no spoilers on this episode.

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The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu

AF357627-167C-4A24-A9EB-25093AF52EB2Before I say anything about this book, here is the premise.

For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Cantú tries not to think where the stories go from there.

Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story. Searing and unforgettable, The Line Becomes a River goes behind the headlines, making urgent and personal the violence our border wreaks on both sides of the line.

This book enraged me. I found it to be a self serving and romantic look at immigration into The United States. Cantu’s story is told through short glimpses into his life. He tells us little antidotes of how he was kind to an immigrant he captured on the border, of how he literally takes the shirt off his back to give one man, and how he asks people their names. He tells us so much of his humanity, and so much of the humanity of all the border agents around him. Even the bad ones come off as not that bad, they’re Cantu’s friends after all. The problem is there is no journalistic integrity. Cantu never sites anything about his experiences, there are no dates, no records, no direct quotes. So how are we to know if any of this book really even happened? And if it did, did it happen how he says?

Every once and a while Cantu will give us a little historical context into the border, its development, the changes in its policing, and the violence that has led so many to leave central America looking for a better life in the USA. In these more academic moments, Cantu does use quotes from other writers. Thankfully. Its the only time actual quotations are used.

The Line Becomes a River is a love letter to Cantu. He writes about his trauma and his growth and the things that haunt him and the things he’s scared of, and his dreams, so much about his dreams. Its a memoir, so of course it’ll be told through his lens. However this book takes it to the extreme. He always does the right thing. He is never in the wrong, he just happens to be in the wrong profession (a profession he chose to go into for perspective). He is always our hero. There is however no one to corroborate any of his stories. It might all be fiction, how are we to know?

There is another conversation at play here, and that comes from Cantu’s desire to be a border agent in the first place. He says its because, after studying the border in college, he wants to see the border in a new way. He wants to be on the front lines. I got the sense that this book was always in the back of his mind. That when he took the job, he knew his experiences would become something more, a vehicle for him.

Cantu tells us, he is trying to humanize the immigrants he comes in contact with, but even that falls short. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the whole book felt like a ode to himself. His growth, his ability to see the humanity that others missed, his trauma, his struggling, his triumph. He is so centered in the book, its hard to believe he really can see anyone else.

When The Line Becomes a River received a lot a criticism after its release, Cantu took to twitter and said the following

“To be clear: during my years as a BP agent, I was complicit in perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy. My book is about acknowledging that, it’s about thinking through the ways we normalize violence and dehumanize migrants as individuals and as a society.

I’m not here to defend BP. But I am here to listen and learn from the ways my writing may be construed to normalize, eroticize, or beautify border violence, and the ways my voice may amplified at the expense of those who suffer from it. Ultimately, I’m here to work against it.”

Even this clarification feels a little off. Cantu was not, as he states complicit, he was an active participant. Just like in the book, he misses the fact that he enables this activity and behavior. And it is worth noting, he does not ever truly condemn the border patrol or the US policies around immigration as violent, hostile, or hateful. He more notes that these things are true, but doesn’t do any work to say why it is that way. Just thats how it is, and isn’t it so sad that he had to live through this.

The last third of the book focuses on Cantu’s journey on the other side of the system. His undoucmented Mexican friend isn’t allowed back in the USA. Simply befriending an undocumented immigrant and helping out while he goes through court proceedings, does not wash away Cantu’s sins. Asking us to believe that it does is condescending.  It also does not mean that you’re humanizing other undocumented people. Cantu’s one experience is not neccessarily indicative of the greater picture, no matter how many pages he writes about it.

Cantu’s sense of entitlement to these stories is felt through out this book. Without any real research or journalistic integrity, we are told this story. We are asked to follow this man and trust his observations, because he is Mexican America, because he worked in border patrol, because he was given a book deal. I simply could not buy in. I don’t believe you should have to either. I would not suggest you read this book. If you’re looking for books about immigration that are both good stories and give insight into the lives of migrants and/or the border patrol look into, The Devil’s HighwayThe Far Away Brothers, and Tell Me How It Ends.Each of these books uses well sited research and beautiful writing to tell stories from the border. In addition, Radio Lab has a fantastic (and also very graphic) three part podcast about the border that is wonderful. I think these are all a much better use of your time.

Did you read this book? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. Comment below.

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