Richard Ford (2012) Canada Ecco, New York; 432 pp.; ISBN 978-0-06-169204-8
This is a novel in three parts. In the first, the narrator Dell Parsons recalls the events leading up to the imprisonment of his parents when he was fifteen and living in Great Falls, Montana. In the second, he depicts his young life in Canada, working for a man with a violent past in a remote town in Saskatchewan. In the final part, Dell is sixty-six years old, still in Canada, and on the verge of retirement from teaching. He recalls his last meeting with his twin sister Berner and tries to draw out some meaning from the events recounted in the first two parts of the story.
Dell’s father, Bev Parsons, is retired from the air force after having been caught in an illegal smuggling racket. Bev tries his hand at selling cars, then real estate, but in an attempt to make better money he revives his smuggling operation, this time linking a group of Cree Indians with a buyer on the Great Western Railway. Dell’s mother, Neeva, is a teacher whose Polish immigrant parents disowned her after she got pregnant and married Bev. She regrets the marriage and longs for a more cultured existence than the one she experiences in Great Falls. Dell’s twin sister is also keen to get away and links up with a tearaway boy named Rudy, hoping he will be her passport to freedom. Dell himself is focused on his interests of chess and beekeeping, and looking forward to senior high school.
Bev’s smuggling operation goes awry so he decides to rob a bank in order to get the money that he owes to the Indians. Neeva, against her better judgement, decides to go along with him. The pair are no Bonnie and Clyde, and a local newspaper describes the ensuing heist as a comedy of errors. Bev and Neeva end up behind bars, Berner heads off into the night and Dell is left alone and bewildered. The family is no more.
Mildred, a friend of Dell’s mother, collects Dell and drives him over the border into Canada so that he can stay with Mildred’s brother Arthur and begin a new life. In fact Dell spends most time with an odd and menacing character named Charley. Dell works as a cleaner in the hotel owned by Arthur and very slowly is taken into Arthur’s orbit. Dell later learns hunting and butchering with Charley, and is also befriended by Florence, a local artist and Arthur’s girlfriend. Arthur has a dark past and ran away from a career at Harvard to escape the police. He settled in Fort Royal in Canada, but after Dell has been living here for a while, two men from Arthur’s past come from Chicago to seek him out. Arthur ends up murdering the two men and runs off. It is Florence who then rescues Dell and sends him to her brother in Winnipeg where Dell finally returns to school and builds his future life.
Dell never saw his parents again after the day they went to jail, and his mother committed suicide there. Dell later married, though he and his wife had no children, and generally he has led a happy life in Canada. In the end he visits his dying sister back in the United States. She has been a heavy drinker and has a cancer that is rapidly killing her, though after a series of failed relationships she is finally living with a man who is good to her.
Despite the bleakness of his youth, and the tumultuous events that saw him uprooted and set adrift in Canada, Dell has remained forward looking and determined. His view of life – though he does not articulate it in this way – is a mixture of the Buddhist ideal of living focused in the present and the existentialist idea that life has no intrinsic meaning and that it is our role as individuals to give it significance. To survive and be content, Dell says, you need to tolerate loss, avoid cynicism and keep a sense of proportion in your life. Sometimes it can be hard to see the good, but it is always there if we are willing to look with unclouded eyes.
Dell experiences some harrowing things for a young teenage boy, but he never surrenders to despair. When the bigger picture is grim, he focuses on the detail of the world around him and maintains a curiosity about life and the way nature works. It might be wrong to call his approach optimism, but in the end that is what it looks like.
Richard Ford’s prose is clear and finely etched. Both Great Falls and Fort Royal, small towns with little going on, come alive in Dell’s story. The wide open spaces of these lands contrast with the densely cluttered thoughts and fears that run through Dell’s mind. Dell is saved by the kindness of strangers – Mildred, then Florence – but his ability to make an ultimately happy life for himself is down to his capacity to build on the cards he is dealt. His sister Berner doesn’t fare so well, in many ways embodying the weaknesses of her mother, though she is cheerful as death looms.
This is a long and detailed novel. The key events – the bank robbery and the murders – are spelled out by Dell in the opening pages, so there are no big surprises on that score. Instead, the novel is a study of how a young boy comes of age under dire conditions, and how good can win out over evil and tragedy if we approach life in a particular way.
Dell is reconstructing events from a long time ago, both explaining how they seemed to him at the time and how he understands them in retrospect as a mature man. It’s a difficult technique but Richard Ford manages it very well and the voice throughout is authentic and convincing. Ford captures the period (the early 1960s) well and the behaviour of the female characters in particular evinces the division between the older generation still adhering to pre-war values and the sixties generation seeking a new way to be. Oddly, Dell fits into neither side of this divide, instead charting a course through life that is at once idiosyncratic and instructive.