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The Edge of the Plain: A stimulating study of border regions

Book review: Scottish historian James Crawford examines geographical and notional divisions

The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World
Author: James Crawford
ISBN-13: 978-1838852023
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £20

The perception of borders can vary greatly, depending on one’s perspective or lot in life. For many in the developed world, particularly Europe’s Schengen region, borders are relics of a premodern world, now mostly invisible as people flit back and forth across them, often without the need for a passport. But, as anyone who has ever travelled across Europe by train or bus will know, the border will often intrude for some passengers — quite often those with darker complexions — who are targeted for inspection once a new country is reached. The situation is even starker for others who risk their lives to cross the all-too-real borders that cut the West off from the Global South.

Borders first emerged as pragmatic limits to a state’s ability to hold territory, and over time morphed into moulds of national imaginaries, even if an echo of the former still lingers. Scottish historian James Crawford’s The Edge of the Plain examines, in an erudite and engaging fashion, a select number of borders around the world, both geographical and notional.

Crawford travels to northern Scandinavia, where Sápmi (historically known as Lapland) has asserted itself in recent decades as a transnational region; to the US-Mexico border, where archaeologists study the detritus left behind by desperate migrants; to the Austro-Italian border, where a receding glacier yields bodies that have been encased in ice for millenniums; and to the occupied West Bank, where Israel has solved the problem of the border by moving it into Palestinian territory and gradually vitiating it through illegal settlements.

The author also looks at phenomena that pay little heed to the frontiers that humans have grafted on to the planet — namely climate change and pandemics. In each instance, there is an intimation that borders might be rendered academic by significant global upheavals.


This fine book is, unsurprisingly, non-exhaustive, and you sometimes wish there was more of it. A discussion of the Northern Ireland border might have been welcome, given how topical the matter has been in recent years. An examination of such an unwanted border and its potential return might have given further texture to an already stimulating book but, to be fair, this quibble probably underlines how broad and protean the subject matter, one that Crawford so adroitly tackles.