The best books about borders you haven’t read

Zeese Papanikolas Author Of An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World
By Zeese Papanikolas

Who am I?

Growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1950s I was very soon aware that I was living in a world of borders, some permeable and negotiable, and some almost impossible to cross. It was a city of Mormons and a city of those who weren’t; a city of immigrants like my grandparents, and about whom my mother wrote (and wrote well); and a Jim Crow town where Black men and women couldn’t get into the ballroom to hear Duke Ellington play. Finally, it was a city haunted by its Indian past in a state keeping living Indians in its many bleak government reservations. What to make of those borders has been a life-long effort.


I wrote...

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

By Zeese Papanikolas,

Book cover of An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

What is my book about?

An American Cakewalk is about a group of American jazz musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, and yes, cakewalkers, who didn’t crash head on into the borders of racism, poetic tradition, received ideas and economic orthodoxy that surrounded them, but, like the enslaved men and women who watched their masters’ pompous cotillion, glanced off them through satire and sly subversion. I write about Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, Scott Joplin and Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton and William and Henry James, Thorstein Veblen and Abraham Cahan – and squeeze in some others too.

The books I picked & why

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Sally in Three Worlds: An Indian Captive in the House of Brigham Young

By Virginia Kerns,

Book cover of Sally in Three Worlds: An Indian Captive in the House of Brigham Young

Why this book?

Sally is the moving account of the true story of a captive Indian girl who lived in the house of Brigham Young as a servant and cook, a “wild” woman who had been “tamed” by her civilized captors. When she had almost forgotten her own language Sally was sent off to a Mormon village as the wife of a Pahvant Ute chief in order to “civilize” the local surrounding Indians. Sally’s story asks us what these seemingly simple words “wild” and “tame” really mean, and to think about what they can hide.


Shoshone Mike

By Frank Bergon,

Book cover of Shoshone Mike

Why this book?

In 1912 a posse made up of cowboys and state police caught up with an Indian family on the run and massacred almost all of them. Murderous Indians, vengeful whites: a simple Western story that when told through the multiple points of view of its participants, the sheriff who couldn’t intercept the posse in time, the son of a murdered Basque rancher, and, most poignantly, Shoshone Mike’s adolescent daughter, has the elements of a Greek tragedy. 


The Devil in Texas/El Diablo En Texas

By Aristeo Brito, David William Foster (translator),

Book cover of The Devil in Texas/El Diablo En Texas

Why this book?

Who says American literature has to be written in English? Told through a number of voices and in a mixture of folktales, memories, and dreams that James Joyce would have loved, this novel traces the lives of four generations of a Chicano family in Presidio, Texas who, with the coming of the Anglos and their guns, found themselves separated from their family and friends by a river that once gave life, but now is a border between one country and the next. Over all is the grinning, terrifying Green Devil, who is at once the fields of cotton sucking the life-giving waters from the river, and the malevolent spirit mocking brown people trying to live in a ruined world. It’s a little masterpiece.


The Rise of David Levinsky

By Abraham Cahan,

Book cover of The Rise of David Levinsky

Why this book?

Early on David Levinsky, the immigrant Yeshiva boy, the budding intellectual, learns that America is the land of winners and losers, and if he is to be the former, he has to abandon his old self like the ear-locks he left on a barbershop floor in his first days in this new world. To be an alrightnik he must learn to dance the American dance. And dance he does, but his fabulous success as a garment manufacturer has left something unresolved in himself. His search for love at a Jewish resort in the Poconos is a chapter better than anything Philip Roth ever wrote.

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison,

Book cover of Invisible Man

Why this book?

You may in fact have read this in college as I did, but it will richly reward a return. The protagonist doesn’t have a name because his humanity is invisible to the white world. Sitting in a room with its hundreds of lightbulbs run on power stolen from the city, he reflects on the life that brought him from the rural South to Harlem, and it’s all one grotesque, horrible, comic, and inescapable bad dream. No one sees him, but everyone, from sadistic southern whites, to black nationalists, to the doctrinaire Leftists of “The Brotherhood,” wants to use him.

This is an essential American novel.


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