Canada by Richard Ford
Canada by Richard Ford was a much anticipated spring release – garnered rave reviews in the serious papers – a novel I was eagerly looking forward to reading.
There is really nothing like reading a truly wonderful book – one that is well written, where the words matter, and each sentence is crafted by a skilful writer – a story that unfolds as the writer reveals, and reveals, his story to the reader.
Canada is one of those wonderful books – perfectly satisfying in every way. The story takes place over only a few months in the life of then 15-year-old Dell. He tells us the story from the perspective of 50 years on, as he analyzes what happened when his parents made the ill-fated decision to rob a bank.
Dell has a twin sister, Berner, a much older 15-year-old than Dell is himself. While Berner is experimenting with makeup and boys, Dell is excitedly thinking about starting high school at the end of the summer, joining the chess club and learning how to raise bees. Dell is young and innocent – this is 1960 after all. Dell and Berner’s father, Bev Parsons, grew up in Alabama, served in the air force during the Second World War, wanted to be a pilot, disappointed to be the bombardier. Their mother, Neeva, was from the west coast, an intellectual compared to her husband – a good, if unhappy, mother to her children.
We meet the Parson’s family, in Montana, as a long hot summer comes to an end. Bev has been discharged from the Air Force, as he struggles to make ends meet, he gets himself into a situation that threatens his family - and he needs to get some money quickly.
Bev is not particularly clever and it is no wonder that these amateur bank robbers are caught – and the “children” are left alone when their parents are arrested. You have to remind yourself again that it is 1960 – there are no relatives in the picture – and Dell and Berner are, after all, 15 years old. Neeva had made arrangements for her friend to take charge of the children and drive them to her brother in Canada in order to prevent them from being taken by some sort of children’s services.
The second half of the novel takes place in Canada – in a remote prairie town, a ghost town really, where Dell is taken on by a very strange man, who has a past of his own that he wants to remain secret. Dell is able to think about his situation with some detachment – he must in order to survive. His life, that had seemed as safe as a chess game, has been suddenly completely changed – he has no one to care for him and no security about the future. He wants more than anything to go to school but in the meantime he is working for a hotel, he helps with shooting parties for, mostly American, “sports” who come to Canada for the fall duck hunting season.
The descriptions of the prairie through Dell’s eyes, “where weather means more than time” are wonderful. And the writer’s observances about the past, “you can’t leave it all behind”, as a second crisis looms. That everybody should enjoy a second chance, and more wise advice offered to Dell - that life is long even if it might not always feel that way.
As the much older Dell, 50 years later, muses “there is much to learn here from the game of chess whose individual engagements are all part of one long engagement seeking a condition not of adversity or conflict or defeat or even victory, but of the harmony underlying all.” The adults who counseled Dell in his youth left him with advice about how to make a life – “generosity, longevity, acceptance, relinquishment, letting the world come to me”. And this he does.
I could just as easily – instead of writing a review of this novel - have just said –This is a great book – you need to read it. Period. Canada by Richard Ford.