432 pages; $29.99.
First, a note: this is the second book I’ve read for the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge. It’s under the category of ‘literary fiction’. I already read a lot of that, so it’s not exactly exploration, but anyway:
“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.”
That’s the first couple of sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada, and it hooked me right away. Impossible to resist.
That opening sets quite a scene, doesn’t it? We’ll hear about a robbery, then some murders – sounds like a thriller.
Well… not really.
Our protagonist is Dell Parsons, fifteen years old at the time of most of the story. He’s nerdy, interested in chess and bees, but it’s his parents who define him. His father is a cheerful ex-Air Force bombardier. His mother is a tightly-wound Jewish schoolteacher. As we learn right away, they robbed a bank, and that’s what the first half of Canada looks at.
Robbing the bank, for Dell’s parents, is suicide. It makes perfect sense at the time (even to his usually-sensible mother); it ends the lives of those who carry it out (their free lives, anyway). Much is made of the sense of weightless freedom the parents feel after deciding to rob the bank. It’s the last decision they’ll ever have to make. Of Dell’s father: “He always believed he wasn’t the kind of man to rob a bank. This was his great misunderstanding.” There’s a sense that they unconsciously know what they’re getting into – looking for a way out of their lives – but going about it in an indirect, roundabout way. It’s obvious from the narrator’s fifty-year distance, but too huge for anyone to see at the time.
The pace of this section is slow but incredibly deliberate. Chunks of information are interspersed throughout Dell’s reflections on his parents’ natures, the workings of the world, and other metaphysical quandaries of interest to a teenager in 1954. Those chunks, though, often have a huge impact on the story being told, and are mentioned only in passing. Every time something pops up – such as a chapter ending with, ‘I was never there again.’ – it requires a quick rearranging of the reader’s beliefs and expectations.
Something like that, anyway.
At first, I didn’t like the second half of Canada. It felt peaceful, dreamlike – nothing like the burning build of the first half. Eventually I decided that it’s supposed to. The second part, which takes place in Canada (finally) represents Dell’s quiet acceptance of his new position in life. After spending the first part reminding readers how aware children can be of their parents’ true intentions, and how readily they adapt to difficult situations, Dell proves it in the second. It’s a big gear change, from theory and introspection to practice and consequence – but it works.
The third part is a coda, which rejoins Dell in the present day, fifty years later. It’s used to wrap up the few lingering loose ends – most notably, for me, the question of what happened to the narrator’s disappearing twin sister. But I found it unsatisfying because, earlier in the book, so much information is presented in asides and digressions. From the first lines, the reader begins to build an idea of what happened and what’s going to. Part three wraps up the story a little too neatly, though it’s still masterfully told. With the theme that life is messy, that you can’t always predict what will happen – “no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from – anything at all can follow anything at all.” – I found it a little jarring to be simply told what happened to everybody. (The last few sentences, though, are wonderful.)
As in many American novels, the setting is integral. Canada reminded me of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories (though not quite as desolate as all that). The scenery – Montana’s prairies, Canada just to the north, the small towns of North Dakota – all push Dell’s father into the bank robbery scheme. In the end, Dell’s parents’ personalities, history, and location make such a scheme all but inevitable.
Here in Australia we don’t really have anything like the US-Canada border, especially in 1954 when the border was not so tightly controlled. It’s just a step away. With the wide-open spaces of Montana pressing down, making people feel lost and invisible, and that huge unknowable country resting gently to the north, is it any wonder that Americans felt isolated, yet somehow beseiged? Is it any wonder that Dell’s parents feel the unconscious need to escape, to be away, no matter the consequences?
Well – I don’t know. I’m young, poorly traveled; a naive child, really, at this scale. But it’s a testament to Ford’s writing that I have these ideas at all. I was transported slowly but seamlessly. I got a glimpse of the small-town life I’ve never experienced, and I got a flash of how that life can exert silent, grinding pressure on people.
That’s the joy and the melancholy of this book. You’re swallowed up by the wide-open spaces of the prairie and the disintegrating ghost towns of the Saskatchewan wilds.
That’s the reason I read so much American literary fiction, I think. Wide spaces. Woods. Colleges. Highways. The long, slow burn of lives, in four hundred pages. If you liked the feeling you got from Bad Dirt, or you just like really good fiction, I think you’ll like Canada too.