The Death of the Pioneer Myth

A remarkable novel, Lost Children Archive, and a work of history, The End of the Myth, reckon with a walled border.

Katherine Lam

Lost Children Archive opens as a family prepares for a transnational journey. The man is a sound artist; the woman’s a radio documentarian; the boy is 10; the girl, 5. The man has announced that he has to go to Arizona on a recording quest, and whether he intends to come home again is not clear. The woman is opposed but eventually agrees: They will all drive west until they find what the man is looking for, and decide later whether they’re returning home together.

If the broad details of the plot feel vaguely familiar, it’s because Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican novelist and essayist now living in the United States, has taken up the American pioneer myth: A family (here named, as is traditional, “Ma” and “Pa,” “the boy” and “the girl”) sets out from the relative safety of the East Coast in a wagon (here, a station wagon) in wary but hopeful search of a new home. Theirs is a pilgrimage to a kind of western Zion, fraught with peril, undertaken because it is the only solution to an existential threat. But the migration in Lost Children Archive is constructed as an inversion of the American frontier fable—its anti-myth, its interrogator.

Luiselli’s pioneer family departs from the Bronx. Unlike the old trope, in which the Anglo-Saxon family confronts a wilderness populated by “hostile” native tribes, this family is threatened by the “white supremacist something” playing over the speakers in a Virginia gas station. They clench their teeth through an encounter with a policeman who scolds them about getting the girl a booster seat. (Luiselli never directly states the family’s racial identity, but the woman’s fluent Spanish is a clue.)

book cover

The threat forcing this migration is relational rather than physical—emotional estrangement, broken communication, divorce. It’s a blended family—the son is the man’s by birth, the daughter the woman’s—but one that has entirely bonded, until now. The woman, who narrates most of the book, senses that she and her husband will part ways at the end of this road trip and that the children, who have been siblings as long as they can remember, will be separated. “Inside the car, although we all sit at arm’s length from one another, we are four unconnected dots,” she thinks, “each in our seat, with our private thoughts, each dealing with our varying moods and unspoken fears.” In leaving home, they have lost the “small but luminous space where we had become a family,” and without a “center of gravity,” they seem unlikely to survive as the family they once were.

The man’s sound project, which inspired the road trip, is an “inventory of echoes,” an archive of the sounds of the Chiricahua Mountains, in southeastern Arizona, the heart of Chiricahua Apache country, where, he tells the children, “the last free peoples on the entire American continent lived before they had to surrender to the white-eyes.” (The Chiricahua, represented by Geronimo, were in fact the last of the free tribes to surrender to U.S. government troops, in 1886; many of the ambient events of this book are fact-checkably nonfictional.) He is out to record “the ghosts.”

The woman, meanwhile, is working on an audio documentary about migrant children arriving at the southern border from Central and South America and going missing—at the hands of smugglers (known as “coyotes”) or the U.S. government. A friend from New York calls to say that her two daughters, who were migrating alone under the supervision of a coyote and had made it into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have suddenly vanished. Hearing reports on the car radio of missing minors, the boy and the girl start to call them “the lost children,” so the man and the woman do too.

What they’re driving toward isn’t so much a Zion as an absent monument, not the pioneer’s “freedom” or “land of possibility” but the site of the final stroke of the genocide and enslavement those myths excused. At first it’s the man who wants to reach the place where Geronimo surrendered, but the children soon take an interest, imagining other outcomes. “They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories,” Luiselli writes. “What if Geronimo had never surrendered to the white-eyes … The lost children would be the rulers of Apacheria!” The woman privately comes to think of their destination (which is, in the end, a real corner of Chiricahua National Monument called Echo Canyon) as the place where the family will discover which of its own possible trajectories will come to pass: stay together, or part.

I am to see to it that I do not lose you, promises the final line of a Walt Whitman poem that the man and the woman recited to each other at the beginning of their romance. This mandate haunts the book. What happens when a person is lost to loved ones, to herself, to history? Can such loss be prevented? Can we be retrieved?

Both mother and son—who also narrates part of the book—are curious about the documentary impulse, and anxious about whether documentation can shore up the world against loss. The boy received a Polaroid camera for his birthday just before they set out on their journey, and he spends the first part of the drive learning how to use it. His immediate questions aren’t so much technical as ontological, maybe prompted by his curiosity about what his parents do. “So what does it mean, Ma, to document stuff?” Before the woman replies, she reflects:

Perhaps I should say that documenting is when you add thing plus light, light minus thing, photograph after photograph; or when you add sound, plus silence, minus sound, minus silence. What you have, in the end, are all the moments that didn’t form part of the actual experience. A sequence of interruptions, holes, missing parts, cut out from the moment in which the experience took place … The strange thing is this: if, in the future one day, you add all those documents together again, what you have, all over again, is the experience. Or at least a version of the experience that replaces the lived experience, even if what you originally documented were the moments cut out from it.

What should I focus on? the boy insists.

This is a bit heady, but the book itself is attempting to solve a heady problem: how to account for the past and the present at once, how to hear the people who remain undocumented, how to rescue what is lost and also make sense of what and who are still here. By combining archivist protagonists interested in border politics and indigenous people’s history, Luiselli invites a closer look at the word undocumented. Being undocumented also means having no proof of self to carry forward into the future.

The woman seems dizzied by history, as if now is the time when all eras and their energies collide—when the past is the present and the future is impenetrable and uncertain. She’s struck, she says, by a change in the world.

Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable. And without future, time feels like only an accumulation. An accumulation of months, days, natural disasters, television series, terrorist attacks, divorces, mass migrations, birthdays, photographs, sunrises.

The boy’s question about where to point his camera, the woman concludes, suggests the real problem: “Our ways of documenting the world have fallen short.”

Lost Children Archive attempts its own new form as if in answer to that challenge. The family’s story is interspersed with archival lists cataloging the contents of each of the seven boxes they have brought along. Luiselli inserts photographs, migrant-mortality reports, maps, newspaper clippings, reading lists, and an annotated photocopy of a poem by Anne Carson, as well as sequences of notes on “stranger echoes,” “car echoes,” “insect echoes,” “leaves echoes.” There is even a second book within this one—the woman reads a novel about migrant children to the boy and the girl, and it appears chapter by chapter, as a counterpoint to their own journey. One of Lost Children Archive’s pleasures is its resemblance to the kind of collection that emerges when a dedicated mind is at work on the same problem over the course of years. Luiselli gives us the text and the metatext, and instead of being a contrived poststructuralist irritation, the approach feels elegant and generous. She has left us the paper trail.

Luiselli has created an extraordinary allegory of this country’s current crisis of self-concept: What do America’s borders mean now? Why are some migration (or pioneer) stories celebrated in the nation’s history, while others are framed as intrusions to be erased from the record? The same political and existential questions animate the historian Greg Grandin’s new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. In his account, lust for the frontier has been the driving force in American history, starting with Christopher Columbus and sweeping westward to the Pacific, then imperially across the world, and now back home to the contested U.S.-Mexico border. Only now, he argues, are the fallacies of America’s self-mythology of “endless becoming and ceaseless unfurling” clearly revealed, along with their consequences.

book cover

“This ideal of freedom as infinity,” Grandin points out, rested on domination—first of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexicans, and then of whatever countries U.S. forces decided to occupy. The society created through this expansionism was inevitably plagued by injustice: economic inequality, racism, nationalism, political sectarianism, and violence. But the ever-receding frontier provided a safety valve for the pressures it caused. “A constant fleeing forward allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems.”

The logical flaw is obvious: At some point the system is going to implode. “In a nation like the United States,” Grandin writes,

founded on a mythical belief in a kind of species immunity—less an American exceptionalism than exemptionism, an insistence that the nation was exempt from nature, society, history, even death—the realization that it can’t go on forever is bound to be traumatic.

He suggests that the moment of implosion has crystallized in Trumpism’s rhetoric of division and isolationism. “Expansion, in any form, can no longer satisfy the interests, reconcile the contradictions, dilute the factions, or redirect the anger.”

“Something changed in the world,” Luiselli’s woman says. “Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it … somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits.” Americans no longer enjoy the illusion of a limitless world. Now we are nose to nose with a wall. Grandin, like Luiselli, is a fan of Anne Carson, whom he also cites: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” If we have lived past ours, what (or whose) mythos will take its place?

Both Grandin and Luiselli decline to imagine forward into the beckoning horizon of a new national story. Instead, they reach back to retrieve the narratives of those who were dominated or eclipsed in history. Grandin’s book pays careful attention to the various peoples who were subjugated, enslaved, or exterminated in the name of the American project. If Luiselli’s narrator asks whether the undocumented can be retrieved, Grandin’s answer is yes, partly—at least for the historical record.

Luiselli’s focus is narrower: the thousands of children who have vanished trying to cross into the United States (the littlest, most vulnerable pioneers). Their saga has captured the American imagination as much as frontiersman stories did two centuries ago, and yet their stories explicitly frame the United States as a site of terrifying erasure rather than self-authorship. In adopting the novel as her format, she suggests that their voices in particular are reachable only with the help of imagination. Some children, she admits, are simply lost. Their absence, their horrible silence, is what’s left to record.

This silence is accented by the two tender, rowdy children journeying in the narrator’s back seat. With an ethnographer’s curiosity, she records their moods, their games, their funny and poignant judgments on the country out the window, their various assertions of selfhood. The boy and the girl are the bright, almost painful joy of the book—and the starkest indictment of a country at whose hands children can be erased. Near the end of their journey, the boy and the girl stand alone at the edge of a canyon in Apacheria, surveying the landscape. They begin to play a hide-and-seek game of their own invention—hollering “Geronimo” when they spot each other—and the girl shouts so forcefully that the name comes back to them: “eronimo, onimo, onimo.” They have arrived at Echo Canyon. Excited, they shout Geronimo’s name again, and then their own names, and eventually their names mix with the lost name, until the boy is “full of thunder-feelings, my stomach, and full of lightning, my head.” He calls into the void and his voice rings forward and backward, all around him, like an arrival of ghosts.

This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “The Death of the Pioneer Myth.”