Book Review by Heidi Simmons
Is it at all possible to disregard your past? Can one leave a childhood and a country behind without it influencing the future? And should a child take responsibility for his actions once he becomes an adult? These are a few of the lingering questions generated by Richard Ford’s provocative new novel, Canada (Ecco, 420 pages).
In Canada, the first person narrator, Dell Parson, considers his life and the traumatic events that destroyed his family and shaped his future. Dell tells how his parents became bank robbers, his subsequent getaway to Canada and his participation in the murders of two innocent men.
Part One of the story takes place in Great Falls, Montana during the early 1960s. Dell and his twin sister Berner are 15 years old when Dell’s father, a handsome, charismatic southern gentleman, is discharged from the Air Force for being involved with illegal black market trading off-base. Their mother, Neeva, is a schoolteacher and the estranged daughter of Jewish immigrants. Neeva believes she is sophisticated and everyone else is beneath her. Dell and his sister were conceived on their parents first date. This causes Dell to speculate that the problems in the family began with their conception.
Dell hopes that with his father’s discharge from the military, the years of moving from base to base will end and the family will be able to settle permanently in Great Falls. Dell looks forward to starting high school and making friends. But Dell’s father can’t seem to find work that satisfies him or his wife and he once again gets involved with illegal dealings that lead him to trouble. In desperation Dell’s parents resort to robbing a bank, believing it will solve all their problems.
When the parents are caught and imprisoned, the children are afraid they’ll be put in an orphanage or juvenile detention. Berner, more mature and assertive than Dell, runs away. Dell is left alone until a friend of his mother’s takes him to Saskatchewan, Canada, to live with the woman’s brother — an American expatriate, anarchist and sociopath. Dell’s world becomes a Dickensian tale of childhood woe and horror as he is forced to make a living and partakes in the murder of innocent men.
Canada is not a “crime” novel, nor is it a plot-driven tale about a boy who must free himself from a monster of a man and return to America. Rather, it is the story of a child caught up in events beyond his control. It is both Dell’s memoir and confession. And perhaps it’s a way for him to find some peace and maybe even redemption. But Dell does not go on this journey of remembering the past on his own accord. He only revisits his youth when his students, planning for his retirement party, discover that his dying sister is looking for him.
Author Richard Ford is a literary master of place and setting. His descriptive language envelops the reader in the cool breeze and vast open spaces of Montana and Canada. Ford’s characters live in circumstances where the landscape influences their decisions and determines their fate.
As Dell copes and adapts to his new life in Canada, he says: “Why the change of weather and light produced a change in me and made me more accepting — more than the awareness of time passing — I can’t say. But it had been my experience in all these years since those days in Saskatchewan. Possibly being a town boy (in town, time matters so much) and being suddenly set down in an empty place I didn’t know, among people I knew little about, left me more subject to the elemental forces that mimicked the experience I was undergoing and made it more tolerable. Against these forces — an earth rotating, a sun lowering its angle in the sky, winds filling with rain and the geese arriving — time is just a made-up thing, and recedes in importance, and should.”
This work is a departure from Ford’s award winning Bascombe trilogy — The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of The Land. Yet Canada is reminiscent of Ford’s visceral short story collection, Rock Springs, with its wide-open spaces, questionable behavior and fringe characters.
As a title, Canada is misleading. It is not about the benign and beautiful country to our north or its people per se, but about the lives of those who flee to a place where they can disappear from themselves and their crimes. Ford makes Canada a kind of imprisonment, where the sentence is imposed by its vast landscape and difficult environment for as long as one can survive.
At its heart, Ford’s story is about an older man who is so damaged by the events of his youth that his whole life has been one of denial and childish acceptance. Dell survived the ordeal of growing up and was able to become a productive member of society teaching college-level English. But even after fifty years, as Dell contemplates and recounts the crimes of his parents and the murders, he never comes clean. Dell never considers going to the police with what he knows. It is as if he is resigned to remain imprisoned and finish his life sentence alone in Canada.
Canada is Ford’s finest work. He tells a compelling tale of family, destiny and choices. There are passages and observations by Ford that are eloquent and profound. Anyone growing up in a dysfunctional family will recognize the truth of his prose.
Real life is not plotted. We cannot pick our parents and we are all victims of circumstance. But at some point, when we are able to see and understand the events that directed and shaped our young lives, is there an obligation to take responsibility for our actions? Like Charles Marlow (in Heart of Darkness) and Jay Gatsby (in The Great Gatsby), Dell Parson, in Ford’s Canada wrestles with all the dark complexities of human nature that make for a great American novel.