Richard Ford's numerous well-regarded short stories --- as well as (in particular) his critically acclaimed Bascombe Trilogy consisting of THE SPORTSWRITER, INDEPENDENCE DAY (which won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award), and THE LAY OF THE LAND --- have placed him firmly at the center of the American literary establishment. His new novel, CANADA, an elegiac work set in the American West and, yes, in our neighbor to the north, will further cement his reputation as one of our most skilled writers. Ford's control of his prose and pacing here is no less than masterful, and the story he tells --- of one man trying to come to terms with the events of his childhood over which he had no control --- is universal.
"CANADA is not a happy novel, but it is a beautifully introspective one. The way that Ford unfolds his story with care, restraint and the utmost thoughtfulness is a model of storytelling by a writer completely in control of his craft."
Of course, not everyone's childhood was as tumultuous as that of Dell Parsons, whose parents were arrested for bank robbery in the early 1960s when he was 15. But many of the issues with which Dell --- who narrates the novel from the point of view of his much-older self, now an English teacher worlds away from the milieu of his youth --- grapples will be familiar to anyone who has tried to make sense of childhood, of distant or absent parents, of the circumstances that made us what we have become.
Dell and his twin sister, Berner, have been brought up in a military family, bounced from base to base before landing (without much justification) in Great Falls, Montana, where no one in the family seems truly happy. Dell's father, Bev, is the quintessential Southerner --- larger than life, endlessly optimistic, constantly comparing Montana (unfavorably) to his roots in the Deep South and asking his children if they feel like Alabamians (which they don't). In one of the great fictional mismatched marriages, Dell's mother, Neeva (short for Geneva), couldn't be less like her husband. She's tiny, unattractive, and a secular Jew with failed aspirations to further her education and teach college. Her academic yearnings and her feelings of superiority mean that the whole family is somewhat alienated from life in Great Falls, leaving Dell (and the reader) to wonder whether in a different place, under different circumstances, his story might have been very different, too.
Dell is convinced that his father was destined to become a small-time criminal. His father's interest in Bonnie and Clyde seems to extend beyond fascination and toward aspiration, and whose entire life --- including a convoluted and illegal money-making scheme that started during his dad's time in the service and culminates in the robbery --- seems pointed in that direction. But Dell remains mystified by his mother's role in the heist, and his efforts to understand her motivations form a major theme of the novel. The idea of looking back at one's childhood and youth through the lens of adulthood, of trying to understand one's parents as individuals rather than as extensions of one's youthful self, is a universal pursuit, and one that Ford explores skillfully and perceptively.
All young Dell wants is to settle down, excel at school, learn the rules of chess, and figure out how to raise bees. He's a quiet kid, with no friends other than his sister --- whose own desires revolve around leaving Great Falls as soon as possible. When his parents are arrested and his life is turned upside down, Dell must come to terms with a very new and uncomfortable sense of his life's possibilities and limitations. However, the narrator Dell claims that "to concentrate on Berner leaving would make all this seem to be about loss --- which isn't how I think about it to this very day. I think of it as being about progress, and the future, which aren't always easy to see when you're so close to both of them." This conflation of loss and progress, of past and future, forms the heart of the novel's quite different second half, which finds Dell continuing to come to terms with the lot of his parents, even as he navigates his own path toward the future.
CANADA is not a happy novel, but it is a beautifully introspective one. The way that Ford unfolds his story with care, restraint and the utmost thoughtfulness is a model of storytelling by a writer completely in control of his craft.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 25, 2012