scraping an icy windshield

Pig Iron on the Edge: A Library is an Act of Defiance

Anna Basile is among the first year UArts/Pig Iron MFA students that traveled to the northern border of the United States, spending time in both Madawaska, Maine and Edmundston, New Brunswick. Below, she recounts her experience in a library build directly on the border between the U.S. and Canada. 

Five of us wake up early Tuesday morning to drive from Madawaska, Maine to Derby Line, Vermont. The van’s windshield is completely frosted over, and glare makes it impossible to see. I jump out to show Quinn how a New Englander scrapes her windshield.

After the second Tim Horton’s stop we are close to the border. It will be the sixth time we’ve crossed. First by train, then in a car, then on foot over the Madawaska/Edmunston bridge, and now in the Haskell Free Library all it takes is a step over a line of black tape on the floor. According to an employee, the Haskell family built the library on the border as an act of defiance. Before a formal dividing line was drawn, the surrounding communities had been one, and this library was a reminder of that fact.

Maybe you’ve heard about the library. It was recently featured in an episode of This American Life. There are two entrances, one in Canada and one in Vermont. A long piece of black tape runs across the floor, signifying the border, and one is free to cross it inside the building without repercussion as long as they exit to the same country from whence they entered. The library is unique for its neutrality in a time when many people cannot cross the border due to the terms of their visa or the status of their home country as a national security threat to the US. This library tucked away in northern Vermont has become a place where families and loved ones separated by borders are (briefly) reunited. 

We are met by a friendly employee who gives us a tour. The library is small and bright and warm. The wood floors are honey colored and many of the windows are stained glass. There is a piano in the children’s section, and a moose head on the wall above the front desk. I quickly become aware of a pair sitting in the corner of the children’s section speaking in Spanish at a low volume. They do not appear to be looking for books. Our tour guide keeps talking, but at this point I am actively tuning him out. I strain to hear the conversation in the corner without giving myself away. The group disperses, and I settle in at the children’s drawing table, partially hidden by a shelf of picture books. Doodling with the crayons provided in cup on the table, I listen. 

I feel like a spy taking notes on a private moment. I worry that I’m making assumptions: trying to write the dramatic story I want to hear instead of what might be a perfectly normal story- two people having a conversation in a building where people are supposed to whisper. It’s a beautiful sound, hushed voices and the ambient sounds of a small, sunny library. I catch snippets of their conversation and translate only the phrases I feel confident I’ve understood. ‘The rent is expensive… Spring Break… stress… something about summertime in Florida…’ Then the woman gets a phone call which she goes into the hallway to answer and she speaks in English. I hear her say “When you leave the country the visa stops working… The thing about a null visa is… As far as I know that’s why they have children’s passports… Would it be the recent documents? Okay, so I’ll look for those.”

She returns to speak to the man, and they laugh and seem happy to be together. Other patrons enter and exit the library and I lose track of the pair’s voices among the sounds of creaking floorboards and snow boots scuffing in the hallway. She gets another call and leaves again, this time for a longer while, and comes back only as we are all about to head to the car. Two young boys come in with her, and they grumble a little when she tells them to take off their coats and hats. “My boots too?” one asks. “No, not your boots!” the woman chuckles. The boy flashes me a smile before they all head in to say hello to the man. They hug and laugh and speak in English. Which entrance did the man come in from? Will he be leaving with the woman and two boys, or heading out a different door?

It’s time to leave. More hours of driving await. We exit through the American side back to the car and head to the border, passports in hand.