by Pat Barker
Teaching notes prepared for VATE members
by Jason Jewell
1. Introduction Page 1
2. Ways into the text Page 2
3. Running sheet Page 4
4. A perspective on the text Page 6
5. Character, style and setting Page 8
6. A guided approach to selected passages Page 13
7. Activities for exploring the text Page 16
Page numbers in these notes refer to Barker, P. Border Crossing, PF Penguin, 2002
VATE Purchasers may copy Inside Stories for classroom use
An introduction to Border Crossing
What would you do if you witnessed a young man intentionally jump into a deep
waterway? Well, this is precisely the sight that confronts child psychologist, Tom
Seymour, as he and his wife are leisurely taking a stroll along the riverbank behind
their subdued small town street in Newcastle, England. ‘Grateful to be distracted from
their own problems’ – specifically their increasingly loveless relationship and
impending divorce – Tom and his wife Lauren both leap to the man’s aid. Spurred on
by his ethics of his profession, no doubt, Tom saves the suicidal Ian Wilkinson from
death – and from himself.
But that is only the beginning of Barker’s frightening psychological study of how the
mind corrodes itself through compounding fear, shame and guilt for deeds done in
the past. One of her central statements in this powerful thriller is that ‘things aren’t
just random’ and Ian happens to be the very same child that Tom helped convict to a
particularly damaging stint in a juvenile correction centre eights years previously.
Carrying on life on the outside under a pseudonym, the man Tom saves from killing
himself is none other than Danny Miller, the perpetrator of the heinous crime of killing
Lizzie Parks, an old, defenceless woman, as a ten-year-old boy. And just as Danny
has not effectively dealt with the reasons why he bludgeoned his neighbour to death,
so too is Tom unable to deal with his conscience in helping to indict a young boy to a
life of incarceration. It seems then, that the two are, in more ways than one,
Interwoven into this primary relationship is the subplot of the inexorable demise of
Tom and Lauren’s relationship, and the many mini-episodes of tragic poverty-stricken
families that Tom encounters on a daily basis. These are not coincidental to Barker’s
moral. While Tom is effective and heroic in comprehending the complexities of tired,
dissatisfied, yet resilient mothers who aim to raise their children in a materialistic
society in which there is no compassion for the poor, he deflects his own problems –
and it comes as no surprise that like Danny, he is left alone to deal with his own
demons, loneliness and complicity in past events at the end of the day. So, while he
is supposed to be the professional – who can act as a sympathetic and caring role-
model for those in need of the rare quality of empathy – very few people happen to
recognise his own worries. His mother benignly reminisces about her lost husband
and attempts to tell him how to fix his marriage; his wife has withdrawn into her own
cool, clinical demeanour so icy it chills the spine, and his workplace continues to set
him almost impossible tasks of social transformation for those everyone else has
given up on. Only Danny can answer Tom’s questions and assuage the guilt Tom
irrepressibly feels – but even Tom doesn’t recognise this. Barker’s irony is that the
answers we seek may be found where we least expect them to be – or maybe there
are no answers on offer at all. While Tom reflects on ‘how desperate people were for
an explanation’, he avoids his own search, until it is almost perilously too late.
Young readers will comprehend the importance of the ideas that Barker presents us
with. Unafraid to disturb our learned notions of who can be classified a hero, and
willing to interrogate clichéd notions of good and bad as perpetuated in acceptable
society, Barker dares to question what we have been led to believe. Heart wrenching
and sceptical, devastating in its statements about the world today, yet relentless in its
pace and impact, Border Crossing will resonate with different kinds of young people
in many ways. It is not easy to forget.
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Section 2. Ways into the text
On page 1, we already gain an indication that Lauren and Tom’s relationship is
fragile: ‘they’d spent the morning indoors, picking away at their intractable problems’.
‘Grateful to be distracted from their own problems’ (p 2), they stand on the riverbank
watching Ian Wilkinson just before he jumps into the river.
Ask students to brainstorm the kinds of problems that may seem ‘intractable’
between couples. Also, ask them to list, in pairs, the kinds of problems most
couples or families are likely to face over time spent with each other. Then,
they could rank them in order from most, to least, important and discuss, again
in pairs, why they have come to that conclusion. Are there any practical
solutions to the problems?
What qualities in people lead to successful relationships? Ask students to write
a short personal piece describing a successful relationship that they have in
their lives. Suggest possible dynamics: friends, siblings, pets, grandparents,
pen friends, family friends, cousins, and so on. Ask them to give examples of
times that the friendship/relationship was tested and a successful and mutual
outcome was achieved.
At the beginning of the book, Ian/Danny is making an attempt to kill himself, but it is
no coincidence that it occurs in the vicinity of Tom’s house. Clearly, he is seeking
help desperately, rather than wanting to kill himself. Ask the Student Welfare
Counsellor/Coordinator to come to your class and have a brief chat with the students
about some of the myths associated with teen suicide, and to discuss the causes
why young people feel the need to escape.
Ask students to retell the plotlines of movies or books they know where a
character feels the need to/does commit suicide. Ask them to explain, in a
whole class discussion, what the causes were, and what others or they
themselves could have done to prevent the tragedy.
Adults’ influence on children
Danny explains his awe for his father: “he had a gun, he’d killed people…I thought he
was fucking brilliant “(p 97). Another of Tom’s case studies involves the violent child,
Michelle, whose mother’s boyfriend had ‘raped her when she was eight’ (p 23).
Certainly, these parental figures have much to answer for in the construction of the
child characters in the book.
Ask students to consider for a moment how their lives may have ended up
differently if their parents were different kinds of people from the ones they are
now. An excellent film for demonstrating how a parent can negatively affect a
child is Little Voice. Rather than harrowing, the film is quite uplifting and is
essentially a comedy.
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Danny’s English teacher at Long Garth, Angus MacDonald, tells Tom to “watch [him]
self” (p 159) as he approaches the conversation about the murder of Lizzie Parks.
Danny is “very good at getting people to step across that invisible border” (p 129),
between friendship and doing him favours.
which qualities in people make others admire them and how do we avoid
becoming cynical about others’ motives but still establish new relationships?
why is it that people take advantage of others’ weaknesses?
which kinds of adults are particularly vulnerable to being the subject of
allegations in a school- or juvenile- setting?
what kinds of people, do the students believe should not work with children?
Tom recalls a dark moment of his youth when he and a friend, Jeff, terrorised a
family friend’s son, Neil, by putting ‘frog spawn into [his] wellies’ (p 47) which had the
effect of causing Neil to react thus: ‘he screamed and screamed, jumped up and
down, fell over, got up again, soaked, face smeared with snot, piss coursing down his
legs’ (p 47).
Why do people bully others? Ask students to list reasons, and to consider the
different kinds of bullying there are.
Ask the Student Manager/Year Level Coordinator to come and speak to the
class about the school’s policy on how they tackle bullies.
Ask the students to prepare and act out a role-play involving bullying in which
the bully loses in some way.
One of the most recurring themes in the text is the idea that “if you’re not careful, the
present starts to destroy the past”(p 117), and its opposite: “you can’t change the
past but you can change the present.” (p 58). Clearly, Barker is arguing that people
need to make the best out of their present situation in order to improve their own
futures, even though they may not have had a past that was fair or desirable.
Ask students to write about one of their personality traits that have been formed
by an event that happened in their pasts. If they feel comfortable, ask them to
read it out to the class.
As a piece of personal writing ask each student to:
- think about a person who helped you to learn from your ownl mistakes.
- Write a thank-you letter explaining the specific circumstances and how
you have learned from those experiences to be the person you are today.
In groups of four students should debate the proposition: ‘ We can never
escape our past. If we try it will come back to haunt us’
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Section 3. Running sheet
Pp 1-12 Tom and his wife Lauren see a young boy jump into the river
and Tom, instinctively, jumps in to save him. He realises that the
boy is Danny Miller, the boy he had helped incarcerate when
Danny was ten. Lauren and he have conflicting ideas about
Chapter 4 In a flashback of Tom’s first meeting with Danny after he had
been arrested for the murder of his neighbour, Lizzie Parks, we
learn that Tom had told the court that Danny is ‘capable of
standing trial, on a charge of murder, in an adult court’ (p 37).
Pp57-59 Once again Tom feels obliged to help him through counselling.
Smugly, Danny correctly assesses that Tom needs “this as
much as [he] do[es]” (p 59).
Pp 60-64 We meet Danny’s probation officer, Martha Pitt, an old friend of
Tom’s. Martha discerns that he still blames Tom, yet,
inexplicably, wants to discuss the past with him.
Chapter 10, Danny and Tom speak about the negative influence of Danny’s
especially pp 96-99 father.
Chapter 11, p103, Lauren tells Tom she wants a divorce, they make love for the
p108 last time and she begins to remove things from the house. At
the Quayside markets, Danny talks to Lauren.
pp111-12, pp116-18 As part of his work with kids on the Youth Violence Project, Tom
goes to Ryan Price’s house. He speaks to Martha about Ryan,
but also about his problems with Lauren.
pp119 - 129 Tom drives to Long Garth to meet Bernard Greene, Danny’s old
headmaster and his wife. He learns that Danny ‘was very, very
good at getting people to step across that invisible border’ (p
129) specifically in relation to Angus MacDonald who left the
school after Danny accused him of sexual abuse.
pp138-142 Danny tells Tom that he “brushed against [Angus], deliberately
of course.” (p 138). He relates the story of his mother trying to
physically punish him with a belt.
p 159 Tom visits Angus in the countryside and learns that there was
no sexual advance; Danny had made the whole thing up. He
warns Tom to be careful.
Chapter 17, p 163 – When he returns to York, Lauren is speaking to Danny in the
Chapter 21, p200 house. Danny fears people are chasing him, so Tom lets him
stay. Danny nearly burns the house down. The media surrounds
the house and Martha whisks Danny away.
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p208 -212 Tom goes to Hadrian’s Wall to have the day off, then comes
back to rearrange his life without Lauren. Martha and he begin a
P213 While giving a lecture at the University of Wessex, Tom sees
Danny who has taken on yet another identity.
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Section 4. A perspective on the text
Danny denies being abused by his father. He says, “I wasn’t neglected, sexually
abused, starved, tortured, left on my own morning, noon and night, scalded,
burnt…All of which happens.” (p 96). And yet his father did beat him, usually under
the influence of alcohol consumption, which aimed to erase the frustration of poverty
and lack of education that kept him and his family on the bottom rung of society.
While there are certainly mitigating circumstances to explain Danny’s father’s
behaviour, if we do not blame him for Danny’s intense feelings of frustration at the
world – manifesting themselves in his vicious attack on Lizzie Parks – then whom are
we to blame?
Pat Barker’s Border Crossing is more than just a story with the ostensible underlying
theme of people needing to work out the past before they can solve the dilemmas of
the present and have a determined say in their futures. It is no coincidence that Tom
Seymour begins a relationship with Martha Pitt precisely as he solves the mystery of
Danny Miller’s motive for killing his elderly neighbour: the two narrative threads of this
compelling novel coalesce simultaneously because Tom finds the strength to finally
say goodbye to Lauren as he allows Danny to approach him close enough to
confess. But there is more in the structure of this plot than Tom and Danny’s
respective catharses. Barker brings to life a scared and cynical young man whose
experience of growing up left him with nothing but spite and disdain for the society
that had created him. His killing of Lizzie is actually explained very early on, during
the flashback in Tom’s first meeting with him when he was ten. His only explanation
of not feeling remorse that she was dead was that “she’d had her life.” (p 32). His
underlying meaning here is that he never had the chances that she had. His chilling
personality, characterised by his inability to show emotion, is the reason for his
conviction to an adolescence and early adulthood in Long Garth. Even though his
lawyer, Nigel, declares, “if he hadn’t been caught he’d have done it again.” (p 87); his
English teacher warns Tom to “watch [him]self.” (p 159); his headmaster’s wife tells
Tom to “be careful.” (p 133), and even Tom himself calls him ‘an arrogant little
bastard’ (p 33), Barker’s exposition of Danny Miller is anything but derogatory and
condemnatory. In fact, even Tom realises in their first meeting that he ‘had more
reason than most to cry’ (p 36).
In fact, through the short scenes when we see Tom at work with people who ‘came
from places that had been pushed to the edge’ (p 25), Barker builds a convincing
case that our society has failed in providing adequate care and understanding of
those less fortunate than ourselves. Tom and Lauren’s leisurely walk along the Tyne
commencing the book is diametrically opposed to the lifestyles of characters like
Jean Price who has eight children, no husband and lives in a housing estate which
‘had one of the highest rates of muggings in mainland Britain’ (p 111). Even Tom
won’t take his car there when he’s completing his interviews with these ‘kids on the
Youth Violence Project’ (p 111) for fear it ‘would be stolen or torched by the time he
got back’ (p 111). These ‘sink housing estates, urban ghettos’ (p 25) are juxtaposed
neatly against Tom and Lauren’s spacious double-storey apartment with its artworks,
cavernous rooms and surplus furniture in the loft. Their lives are structured around
their professions, their languorous Sundays ‘picking away at their intractable
problems’ (p 1) and their obsession with having a baby, whereas Tom’s clients live in
houses consisting of a ‘bare room with an unguarded electric fire’ (p 112) where a
child like Jason Hargreave (see p 24) can kill four people in a fire and not show ‘a
hint of remorse’ (p 24). These are different worlds, sure; the sad fact is that they both
occur in the same city in England. There is an overt irony in Lauren and Tom’s
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inability to successfully conceive while Jean Price stands in her tiny living room
screaming at her delinquent teenage boys while eight-months pregnant.
Barker’s use of settings polarising such poverty against blatant affluence is
characteristic of her critique of modern Britain. Even at the beginning of the text, she
hints that the country is in danger of allowing itself to fall victim to creating a severely
disadvantaged underclass and neglecting to help those who need it. Obviously, the
multiple references to waste and dilapidation such as buildings ‘derelict and awaiting
demolition’ (p 1), ‘bits of blue plastic, half-bricks, a seagull’s torn-off wing’ (p 2) and
the ‘cold, fishy and rotten’ (p 9) smell emanating from the river, are a metaphor for
the problems infesting the couple’s relationship. These too, can no longer remain
hidden or ignored. However, on a literal level, these examples of pollution and
wreckage underpin Barker’s portrayal of a country that is more concerned with their
history than they are with their urgent social inequalities. The nonchalance and
dismissiveness of those with employment (such as Nigel, Mrs Greene and the media
– who Barker denounces as ‘insects’ and ‘a swarm of killer bees’ [p 201]) towards
those who occupy the lower echelons of society is indicative of the kinds of
discrimination, which lead to a cycle of abuse and hopelessness.
After Danny’s father scars him emotionally with his frightening talk of war, guns and
killings, he leaves. His mother is left with the burden of looking after a son who began
his own SAS, “stole from the boys in the choir” (p 142) and played truant. In her
frustration, she “took the belt to” (p 142) him, replicating the behaviour of his father
who “hung [him] up on a peg.” (p 140). Similarly, Jean Price gives up with her two
eldest sons finally admitting: “If they don’t want to go to court, that’s up to them.” (p
112). Still, she offers Tom a cup of tea, is desperately worried that if she goes into
hospital because she is bleeding from her pregnancy that she will have her children
taken away and is offended at the policemen’s use of expletives in front of her family.
These are decent people who have suffered and are at the end of their tethers –
worn out and defeated by poverty, loss and endless struggle to keep their children on
the straight and narrow. And they have very little success. Danny is so bitter with the
world that he kills a defenceless old woman in order to enact revenge on his lot in
life; the girl Michelle had ‘bitten off the nose of her foster mother’s natural daughter’
(p 23) because her mother’s boyfriend had raped her; Tom’s client Ryan Price ‘spent
six weeks in traction when he was a kid [because his brother] Robbie threw him
downstairs’ (p 115), and then as retaliation Ryan and his mates ‘had thrown [a
security guard] down an escalator’ (p 115). It becomes clear through a careful
exploration of these minor incidents in the text that Barker’s political intention behind
this text is that we need to do more to prevent these people feeling the need to harm
themselves and each other.
In a desperate attempt to rid himself of the guilt associated with murdering Lizzie
Parks, Danny attempts suicide. The tragic revelation that he returns to Long Garth
twice during the first nine days of his release is significant enough for us to realise he
is in danger. It is only through Tom’s goodness – represented by his instinctive wish
to help children in trouble, ‘as mindless as a dog’s retrieving of a stick’ (p 4) – that
Danny is saved. After all, as we are told early on, Danny’s constant fear was ‘whether
[Tom] was prepared to abandon him’ (p 77). Kids like Danny are dangerous; the
question remains, though: do they behave so violently and recklessly because of
some innate desire to harm, or is it much simpler than that?
Perhaps they and their families have been forgotten by the rest of us for far too long.
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Section 5. Character, style and setting
Dr Tom Seymour
The notice that greets Tom and Lauren as they walk along the riverbank at the start
of the book ‘DANGER. KEEP OUT’ (p 1) is a clear sign that they are in trouble.
However, Tom does not heed this omen and jumps into the river to save the boy who
has just jumped. He tells his wife “there was no choice.” (p 11). When he allows
Danny to begin therapy with him it is not just because Tom ‘needed to make the
connection’ (p 70) but also so that Danny felt he had not been abandoned again. He
covers Danny in his coat and lets him keep it at the end of the book; he allows this
dangerous, manipulative and cunning individual into his house, which the boy nearly
burns down, and he embarks on a careful hunt for clues as to why Danny behaves
the ways, he does. These are not just the actions of a meticulous psychologist: Tom
Seymour is a caring and decent man who aims to save the life of Danny Miller (and
others) in more ways than one.
Still, he has his flaws. Tom is inarticulate in his relationship with his wife, ‘used to
switching off, to living his life in separate compartments’ (p 10). He had developed
‘the clinician’s splinter of ice in the heart’ (p 10) and both he and Lauren are ‘grateful
to be distracted from their own problems’ (p 2) when they see Danny on the
riverbank. He silently wishes his wife to ‘shut up’ (p 2) preferring to go to work than to
deal with the ‘intractable problems’ (p 1) in his marriage. But Tom is fortunate. His
work is not just an escapism that will facilitate his forgetting his marital disharmony. It
actually brings him closer to understanding himself, his wife, and to cope with the
brutal reality of separation and divorce. In an attempt to remain objective he utilises a
detached, objective psychological register when dealing with grief. When he notices
his mother’s transferred attachment from his dead father to her cat Tyger, he remarks
to himself: ‘Stage four of grieving: the transference of libido to another object, person
or activity’ (p 43). Typically, Tom is excellent at analysing others but fails to realise
that he too must overcome his loss of Lauren. When he speaks to Danny, the boy
starts ‘to talk about how impossible it was to leave the past behind’ (p 67). But Barker
makes it clear that Danny’s journey of self-understanding is reflected in Tom’s,
despite their age difference. Both were ‘going to have to confront the past…try to
make sense of it, before [they] could move on’ (p 67). Danny’s parole officer, Martha
Pitt, becomes his foil and his confidante. When she (as always) pragmatically
declares: ‘You’re free now’ (p 118), his interior monologue tells us ‘being free didn’t
stop the pain, or the bewilderment, or the sense of failure’ (p 118).
Tom is plagued by two failings: his impotence and his childhood. Defensive and
wounded at the beginning of the novel, he blames Lauren because to her he feels he
has become no more than ‘a walking, talking sperm bank’ (p 12). But also early on,
we learn that ‘things aren’t just random’ (p 17). It is ironic that Tom cannot fulfil his
task in intercourse when he can help so many others. But Barker makes it fairly clear
that Tom’s past ‘demanded attention’ (p 118). He feels guilty that he helped to
convict Danny, and another anecdote involving him being needlessly cruel also
underpins his inability to move on. When he recalls helping a childhood friend Jeff put
‘frog spawn into Neil’s wellies’ (p 47), which led to the four-year-old becoming
hysterical, he is consumed by remorse. At the time, though, ‘the sense of moral
responsibility was missing’ (p 48), which chillingly reminds us of Danny’s lack of
regret at killing Lizzie Parks. In an obvious link, both Tom and Danny need to ‘work
out why it happened’ (p 57). With humour, Barker leads Tom towards a forgiveness
of himself for both of his perceived mistakes: ‘he would never use the word
“dickhead” again…his dick was the only part of him that had shown the slightest
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spark of intelligence’ (p 169). He cannot conceive with Lauren because he has
adversely affected other children’s lives. He needs to help Danny leave the past
behind if he is to establish a brighter future for himself.
Lauren is a shadow in Tom’s life. The first description of her is, indicatively ‘fair-
haired, wearing a beige coat that faded into the gravel, and talking, always talking’ (p
2). Forever slipping in and out of the narrative, we only gain Tom’s first person,
subjective opinion of her and her actions. He treats their relationship with disdain
because he feels she is obsessed with having a child – that her biological clock is
ticking out of control. This is undoubtedly the cause of their marriage breakdown, and
her primary goal, underpinned by the memory of how she had positioned him in one
of her paintings: ‘she held his shoulders, manipulating him into the right position’ (p
145). She is teaching at an art school in London. It is no coincidence that despite
gaining comfort from having her paintings in the house, Tom cannot work or help
himself while they are there. He begins a sexual relationship with Martha only after
the last of Lauren’s objects leave the house.
She feels rejected by Tom and by his commitment to his job. After he saves Danny
from his suicide attempt, she says: “Do you realise you risked your life back there for
a complete fucking stranger?” (p 11). But we learn that she was really ‘angry about
his failure to get her pregnant’ (p 12). She is clearly only interested in her own
concerns. In one of her paintings Tom was ‘barely in the picture, a dark figure,
himself, looking over the water’ (p 169). After their last sexual encounter, she
appears nonchalant: ‘elegantly turned out, cool’ (p 168). She promptly begins another
relationship with a man named Francis. She blames Tom because he’s ‘a
psychologist, for Christ’s sake. It was his job to know’ (p 13). They have been living
apart for a year when the novel opens, and they only see each other on weekends.
When Tom confronts her about her obsession with conceiving she dismisses it with
“I've got to go.” (p 21). When he calls her, she ‘was proving difficult to contact’ (p 80)
and when he talks to her ‘she was remote and monosyllabic’ (p 80). When she
comes home to confront Tom with her wish for a divorce they reach a stalemate: she
feels humiliated and unwanted, and he blames himself. Consequently, they become
detached and ‘began to talk about the practical details of disentangling their lives’ (p
104). After this, she disappears from the narrative.
Martha Pitt invented Danny’s pseudonym – Ian Wilkinson - on his release from Long
Garth, to prevent the media from finding him, and to give him a new start in life. His
two names perfectly symbolise the split in his personality: cool, clinical, manipulative
and dangerous, but also a little boy who needs someone to not abandon him. Danny
has developed pessimism towards adults and for the world, and his objective – at ten
years old – was revenge. He found it in Lizzie Parks, an elderly neighbour. Almost as
though he is seeking a new life into which to immerse himself, he explains to Tom
that he broke into other people’s houses because he “liked being in [them]…nothing
in the house could do anything.” (p 141). And like most neglected and abused
people, Danny gains his vengeance on a cold world by hurting others. His last
vestige of hope, his mother, also slips away from him: she develops cancer and he
fears his father will come back. He relates his experiences with his father: how “he
was tall, he was strong, he had a tattoo that wiggled when he clenched his fist, he
had a gun, he’d killed people.” Danny “thought he was fucking brilliant.” (p 97). But
Danny’s father had also beaten him and hung him up on a peg to humiliate him.
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Danny was made to wring chicken’s necks and to watch his father’s slaughter of
other farm animals. He lost all faith in him when he discovered his father and Fiona, a
girl who helped them out in the house, ‘hard at it’ (p 99) in the barn. Danny, as a
consequence of the anger he felt towards his father, pushed Lizzie down the stairs
and smothered her; he burnt down buildings, including (tellingly) his father’s barn; he
stole money from the choir boys; he framed Angus MacDonald for molestation, and
when his mother tried to take the belt to him, he “swung her round and round…and
she crashed into the wall and slid down it.” (p 142.)
Disengaged and suspicious of all, Danny is torn between seeking love and help in
understanding the past, and wanting to lash out at others because of his awful
childhood. After his release at 23 years old, he returns to Long Garth to try to be
accepted back inside; such is his need for a sense of belonging. When he tries to kill
himself by jumping into the river near, it is no ‘extraordinary coincidence’ (p 61). He is
desperate for Tom’s help and while he bears a grudge towards him for indicting him
as capable of standing trial as an adult, Danny also almost sub-consciously
comprehends that he “can’t change the past, but [he] can change the present.” (p
58.) His reappearance in Tom’s life is scary, but also vital. Tom realises that only
through gaining Danny’s forgiveness, can he help both of their lives move forward.
Danny tries to burn down Tom’s house in the climax of the novel, but Barker’s
description of Danny Miller is a sympathetic one: ‘at first nothing [Tom] said went in,
but then gradually the dazed, swollen look faded from Danny’s face’ (p 200). Instead
of leaving (as his father did), or becoming hysterical (like his mother) or considering
him as a violent horror (like the courts and the media), Tom realises that he must be
reliable and compassionate, for these are the two attributes that Danny has always
sought in others, and failed to find. Even when he forms his own SAS, he is
disappointed by his friends who have to go home and have dinner instead of playing.
When Lizzie finds him in her house – and usually she welcomed his visits – even she
corners him and yells “What you doing, you little bugger?” (p 181), and in an attempt
to escape censure and others’ rejection of him, he kicks her, smothers her and runs
out. It is no surprise that he goes and plays space invaders right after the murder,
escaping the world, which has seen him as nothing other than a pest. When he re-
enters her house and stays there for five hours, he seals his fate of going to prison
for thirteen years. In Court, he is condemned because of his ‘attitude’ (p 87) and they
assume he is “a rotten psychopathic little bastard [who] didn’t give a shit.” (p 183).
Until Tom prises it out of him, no one had heard his version of events: he was
distrustful of the system, which had given him nothing. Finally, Danny explains that
he fed the cats, checked that she was dead and went home. Danny is morally
afflicted by the death though and is constantly perturbed by dreams of Lizzie
haunting him. He comes to the conclusion that “I don’t know why I killed her. I didn’t
know then, and I don’t know now. And I don’t know how to live with it.” (p. 187.) Here,
Barker intones that a child who has been denied love and support and who has been
raised to believe that violence is an admirable quality, will detach himself from his
crimes and will take revenge on those weaker than him. For Lizzie Parks, it is
unfortunate that she knew such a child.
Despite the third person narrative, we gain a comprehensive insight into the personal
thoughts and feelings of Tom Seymour, through Barker’s choice of introspective and
singular perspective. Even though Tom is bitter and fed up with Lauren’s constant
bickering, he says nothing to her. It is only because Barker chose to focus on Tom’s
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thoughts that we learn of his sense of rejection and inadequacy in the marriage: he
begins the book ‘alert, sceptical, unconsoled’ (p 20) and spends most of his time
seeking distractions from the reality of their imminent divorce. Just like the metaphor
of ‘a rope, fraying, one strand after another coming apart’ (p 27), which characterises
his relationship with Lauren, the two narrative strands of the novel – his dealings with
his wife, and with Danny Miller – are inextricably intertwined. As Tom loses Lauren,
he gains Danny, and the amount of time he spends with each is indicative of the
strength of the relationships. Danny is described as ‘a third figure [who] appears,
coming out from between the derelict buildings’ (p 2), and as Tom realises it is none
other than Danny Miller, the boy for whom he still harbours guilt, the boy seeps into
his consciousness and consumes his thoughts. As thoughts of Lauren drift away,
Tom spends more time on his work and on Danny’s catharsis.
The story is told in the past tense and the narrative cuts between Tom’s attempts to
deal with his failed marriage and his sessions with Danny and the other kids he
works with who ‘came from places that had been pushed to the edge’ (p 25).
Importantly, when Danny is retelling his part in Lizzie’s death, he slips into the
present tense, for the incident is very much alive in his mind (see pages 181-182).
These two halves of Tom’s life distract him from dealing with his own reflections on
the past and how he can reconcile himself to the guilt he feels for both his impotence
and Danny’s conviction. Tellingly, only when he escapes from his life and takes a
sojourn to the country, Alnmouth, to visit Hadrian’s Wall. This trek to a symbol of the
past is, of course, not coincidental. He recalls how the birds in this place, the
‘cormorants that lined the cliffs’ (p 209) had been there for thirteen hundred years, as
‘black shapes against the sky, harbingers of death’ (p 209), just like the clouds of the
past would continue to be a presence in his life in the future too. Earlier, when Mrs
Greene describes how Danny worked the system, she says it was “like otters
swim.”(p 129); then later, after his final meeting with Danny, Tom notices a ‘shadowy
creature’ in the river: an otter. ‘He could hardly believe it. Otters on the Tyne’ (p 212).
Clearly, he will remember Danny, but he cannot allow him to encompass his chances
of developing a new life. As he decides not to turn back when an all-encompassing
mist shrouds the track ahead, he resolves that ‘he had no choice but to go on’ (p
211) and when ‘the ground was dry again’ he realises that moving forward is difficult
and scary but that only he is responsible for effecting a brighter future. This leads him
to begin a relationship with Martha, convert the apartment and to work steadily on his
book. The final lines of the novel have Tom standing ‘for a moment in silence,
remembering Lizzie Parks’ (p 216). Barker’s conclusion is that while the past will
remain in one’s memory, an individual cannot allow it to control the present, and
more importantly, the future.
Highly symbolic, Border Crossing is intricate in its recurring motifs of lines being
crossed and animals being hunted and killed. Firstly, the title points to that invisible
line that separates the acceptable and unacceptable, guilt and innocence,
acceptance and rejection, self and others. Danny is “very, very good at getting
people to step across that invisible border.” (p 129), having Angus leave his job for
breaking the rules and working with him in a room with the door closed. But Tom also
does not report Danny’s attempt at burning his house down; he makes a calculated
(and kind) decision to allow him to continue with his progress in forgiving himself
rather than condemn him to further incarceration. The love Tom has for Lauren slips
easily into resentment and the camaraderie that he has with Martha develops into an
easy sexual union. Barker’s contention here is that if we construct boundaries or
‘borders’ in order to categorise others, and ourselves then we will inevitably prevent
ourselves from progressing and be trapped. Because Danny is defined as a ‘horror’,
no one bothers to help him. Only when Tom crosses that invisible border and gets
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close enough to Danny can he both effect his own forgiveness and offer Danny
release from his.
One of Tom’s early dreams involves his father and ‘a rabbit running between graves’
(p 38), and on his initial consultation he asks Danny what the difference is between
“killing a rabbit and killing a person.” (p 32). Danny watched his father wringing
chicken’s necks and he taught him to do so. When Tom visits Angus’ literary group
the stillness of the night is shattered by screams in the field nearby. The occupants
cannot discern whether they are the screams of a child or an animal but conclude
that “it’s a rabbit” (p160) and “there’ll be a fox along soon.” (p 161). Barker erases the
line between animals and people being aggressors and victims though. When Danny
is hiding in Lizzie Park’s wardrobe, he is nearly suffocated by “a fox’s nose with glass
eyes, and its paws are dangling.” (p 181), but Tom too, when his house is
surrounded by the media, has ‘the feeling of being a rat in a trap’ (p 202). This
imagery reminds us that people are both cruel and vulnerable, tiny creatures that
need nurturing and protection and that like animals are both hunters and the hunted.
Both Tom and Danny are rabbits trapped in the past and hounded by their own guilt
and others’ persistent demands of them. They can only escape being caught, not by
running away, but by confronting the past and admitting their mistakes.
As already discussed, it is no coincidence that Barker sets Border Crossing in an
industrial part of England, precisely on the fringes between urban poverty and
absolute opulence. Lauren and Tom’s leisurely lifestyle, underpinned by their
professional jobs stands in stark opposition to the kinds of people that Tom works
with as part of his three year dissertation on the ‘Youth Violence Project.’ It is through
these excursions that he undertakes that we gain a fairly clear image of the gulf
between the haves and the have-nots in contemporary British society.
As the novel opens we notice signs of reconstruction and industrial advancement.
Tom notices ‘crumbling stone and rotting wood’ because the tides from the river
‘worked bits of Newcastle loose’ (p 1). Obviously, the book will centre on the same
kind of stripping away to bare essentials the personality of Dr Tom Seymour, in order
to get to the heart of his current relationship problem, but Barker’s insistent
references to those less fortunate (especially children whom adults have neglected
and abused), points to a deeper concern. Clearly, the dilapidated state of the area
behind their house is a sign of how British society (and by corollary, its Western
counterparts), has hidden the plight of those that modern industrialisation has
forgotten. And because the novel is set in the present (late 1990s, at the earliest, with
references to email [p 169]), we are reminded that these kinds of problems are still
prevalent in society. Tom ‘was aware of their absence: the bridge, the opposite bank,
the warehouses with the peeled and blistered names of those who had once owned
them. All gone’ (p 2), but the problems that Tom and Danny have cannot be erased
by glossing over them with Danny’s new identity as Ian Wilkinson or Tom’s label as a
Symbolically then, we move from a wasteland with ‘derelict buildings’ (p 2), to a river
that is ‘cold, fishy and rotten’ (p 9) from which Danny is saved, to a clinical and
unwelcoming ‘bleak, bare room’ (p 17). In all of these descriptions, the surroundings
do not fit either Danny’s complex personality, nor do they adequately provide for him
a nurturing environment in which he can truly be himself and feel accepted. It is
appropriate, then, that he imparts his confession about Lizzie Parks in Tom’s warm,
open-fire lit living room where he feels he is welcome. Tom provides a bed for him for
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the night, in start contrast to the makeshift and ramshackle environment of the
cowshed (p 93) where his Dad told him stories of his aptitude in killing people in the
Falklands war and in Belfast. The equal distribution of speaking time in his
conversations with Tom, in which both negotiate the speaking and listening terms, is
congruous to the warmth of the room in which they take place.
The natural landscape often effectively represents Tom’s failing relationship with
Lauren, too, but also the violence and cruelty that peppers the novel. Tom remarks
on ‘how fragile it all is’ (p 161). The screech of the rabbit on the edge of the Yorkshire
moors where Angus is staying, represents that nowhere is safe from danger and
human cruelty. When he visits Long Garth, he notices ‘one block of granite…so finely
balanced on top of another that it swayed it the slightest breeze’ (p 119), and Tom
recognises this because his relationships with both Danny and Lauren lie in such
precarious balance that they may, too, in fact topple. Even after he has accustomed
himself to life alone, we hear that ‘winter closed in, icy winds blowing flurries of
stinging snow off the river’ (p 212) in a clear indication that Tom’s new solitude will be
difficult for him. In the urban estate housing Jean Price and her children, ‘every
house left vacant here was stripped of fireplaces, bathroom fittings…because the
owners, despairing of selling or letting the property, paid children to do it’ (p 115), so
it is no wonder that these children are the subject of Tom’s visits, part of a world
which gives them no chance of recognising personal worth or value in others from
such an early age.
A careful exploration of the locations and state of urban living in Border Crossing will
yield some fascinating insights into Barker’s ideas about her characters and their
social environments. These are but a few examples.
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A guided approach to selected passages
Pp 1-4 Tom saves the boy
Note all the phrases that denote that Tom is acting subconsciously. What does
this indicate about his personality and the reasons he does his job?
A clear indication that the relationship is breaking down is established
immediately. Write, in your own words, the differences between the couple.
Construct a scenario in which Tom and Lauren say exactly how they feel.
Barker uses heavy symbolism of dilapidation and decay. Find some quotes
which exemplify this, and explain their significance.
Pp 32-37 Danny’s first meeting with Tom
Describe the methods Tom uses to elicit answers from Danny. Describe
Danny’s personality in your own words according to what he says in response
to Tom’s prompts.
What problem is there in Tom’s search for a dictionary definition of Danny as a
‘horror’ (p 36)? In your opinion, do Danny’s reactions and actions in the text fit
with this narrow definition? Explain.
Write a personal response to the question: ‘Do you think it’s different, killing a
rabbit and killing a person?’ (p 32)
Find other references to the rabbit motif in the novel. List them and their pages
numbers, but also the context in which they appear. What relevance does this
recurring motif have for understanding the themes and characters?
Pp 96-100 Danny’s father
Draw up a table of the events and stories that Danny recollects about his
father. In the second column, discuss with a partner the aspects of Danny’s
personality that may have been formed by these.
Prepare a role-play between Danny and his father with Danny as an adult. You
could perform it in front of the class.
Imagine what Danny’s life would have been like without his mother there at all.
Write a short scenario involving an incident that would have an indelible effect
Make a list in groups of the causes, kinds and effects of abuse that children
have to suffer.
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Pp 162-169 The last meeting between Tom and Lauren
Why does Tom worry that Danny is talking to Lauren? Where else in the book
does this happen? Describe the circumstances. Do you think Danny, at this
stage of the novel, has manipulated such a meeting with Tom’s wife? If so, why
would he do this?
How does the title relate to the way Tom feels about Danny on page 163: ‘He
hadn’t known till now how little he trusted Danny’?
Danny says, on page 165, “I’m like you, Tom.” How do the behaviours of both
characters indicate they are both similar and different? Draw a table and use
specific events as evidence.
Which aspects in this last conversation with Lauren indicate the relationship is
well and truly over? Choose words and phrases that intone the intense feelings
Describe Lauren’s behaviour towards Tom in this late scene of the text. How
does the painting on page 169 effectively portray this relationship and Tom’s
feelings towards it?
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Section 7. Activities for exploring the text
Individual and group work
The following topics could be discussed in a whole class, group or pair arrangement,
or the teacher may decide to have students write individual or group responses.
What is the significance of the title? Draw up a table listing all the opposites,
which are contrasted in the book and describe how certain characters cross the
line, and why. Examples include: ‘good and evil’, ‘innocence and guilt’, ‘child
Draw the scene depicted by Barker at the beginning of the book involving Tom
and Lauren, and Danny’s attempted suicide. Use Barker’s description to
carefully convey a visual imagery of the landscape and dilapidated
What are some of the reasons that people commit violent crimes? Look at
recent newspapers or television programs for the background stories of the
Do you believe in the concept of evil? Can you think of any films or books,
which deal with this concept?
What social classes are there in Australia? What advantages do certain classes
have over others? What do governments do to try to make society more equal?
What makes for a successful relationship? What kinds of attributes should the
partners exhibit towards each other and how should they try to act?
How important is it to you, one day, to have children? List all the reasons why
you think you would like to/not like to.
Debate the following statement: To build a stable home for children, both a
mother and a father are needed.
Draw a timeline of Danny’s relationship with Tom. Mark the peaks and troughs
in their closeness and state the reasons why these changes occur.
At what point does an individual become responsible for his or her own
What kinds of animal cruelty exist in the world today? Do some research and
state which (if any) you find acceptable. How have our ideas on this issue
changed over time? What do we no longer do to animals? (Examples: wearing
fur, testing chemicals for adverse effects).
Do you believe in capital punishment? In what circumstances would you
What is the role of the prison system? Write an opinion piece explaining your
view. Can you think of any alternative arrangements for deterring criminals?
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Create a newspaper headline and story reporting on a heinous crime. Through
providing a background to the incident try to gain the reader’s sympathy for the
Write a persuasive letter to the editor of a newspaper presenting and justifying
your opinion about a recent prison sentence handed down.
Write a short story in which a character who appears good turns out to be evil.
Create a whole wall poster containing words, images, text titles that are
commonly perceived to represent evil. Participate in a general class discussion
to share ideas about where and how we form such judgments.
Imagine that you and three others have been commissioned to develop a set of
official guidelines for developing and maintaining successful relationships.
Prepare a roleplay in which the characters go against some of these guidelines.
Ask the audience to identify what mistakes the characters made. The players
can then modify their dialogue and actions in response.
Imagine you are Lauren. Write a letter to your mother explaining the reasons
you had for wanting a divorce and your feelings towards the end of the
Write a scene in which Danny and Tom meet again in five years’ time. Include
setting, context and any conversation they might have in which they discuss
what has occurred in their lives.
Imagine that Danny at the start of the novel did not distract Tom and Lauren
during their walk. They have an honest conversation instead. Prepare the script
of their dialogue and perform it in front of the class.
Write a letter from Danny to Angus MacDonald in which he apologises for
setting him up. Explain your motives and reflections on the incident.
How successful do you think Martha and Tom’s relationship will be? Write a
scene just after the end of the novel showing how they interact.
Danny’s father re-emerges after a couple of years. What would Danny say to
Imagine if Tom had told the authorities about Danny’s attempt at lighting the fire
in Tom’s house. Describe a scenario from his second visit to a penitentiary.
Write a personal response to the statement: ‘If I could help people from lower
socio-economic backgrounds, I would…’
Part One questions:
Danny’s actions do not deserve the understanding that Tom gives him.
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‘Ian started to talk about how impossible it was to leave the past behind.’ How
does Ian’s/Danny’s journey towards understanding his crime mirror Tom’s
difficulty in reconciling himself with the past?
Both Danny and Tom ‘needed to make the connection’. Do you agree?
Part Two questions:
‘Things aren’t just random.’ How does Pat Barker’s Border Crossing deal with
the concept of coincidence and destiny?
People like Danny commit crimes because of the unfair society they live in and
because of the adults who run it. Do you agree?
“He was very, very good at getting people to step across that invisible border.”
What is Barker’s message about dividing opposites in Border Crossing?
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