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The plot of Richard Ford's magnificent novel Canada is simple enough. Dell Parsons tells the story of what happened when he was 15 and 16, when he lived in Montana with his parents and twin sister. Dell is looking back on these events from his current perspective, in his sixties, in the present, going back about 50 years. Back then, his family had moved around a great deal, because Dell's father Bev was in the air force. But they had been in their current location for four years, and it looked like they might be settling, because his father left his job and started a series of other money-making enterprises. Things got steadily worse, and the financial crisis ends with his parents robbing a bank. Their plans, like their marriage, were ill-conceived, and they soon are arrested. Dell ends up through a strange set of events living in rural Canada, having to shelve all his ideas of going to college. His new life is hard, surrounded by strange characters, but Dell comes to adjust, and ends up as a college professor teaching English, happily married, while the rest of his family end up having far worse lives.
The novel is in two main parts, first in the USA, and second in Canada. The first part is slow-moving despite the event of the bank robbery. It feels claustrophobic, with Dell explaining his small world, focusing on the details of the interactions between his family members and his father's difficulties the people he was in business with, as well as Dell's fascination with chess. This is surely deliberate on Ford's part, for the feel of the novel changes markedly once the second part arrives. Dell's new life is far more grim, but his also takes more control of his life, and the characters he meets are so odd that you want to know more about them.
There are all sorts of themes in this book, such as family, identification with a state or a country, politics, and what makes life worthwhile. It's emotionally brutal in that violence happens quickly, losses and alienating behavior occur without notice, and the story just moves on without dwelling on them. At the same time, it's very carefully paced, written in direct well-measured prose, befitting an English professor. It's an unusual work, with little in common with Ford's previous novels, at least at the level of plot and characterization. At the heart of it there are three mismatched pairs. Dell and his twin sister Berner are very different: she is much more mature than him when they are teenagers, but her life ends up much worse than his. Dell's parents don't fit well together: his father is a man with distinctive values that include complete disregard of most laws, while his mother is an atheist Jew who looks foreign in Montana. The two of them married in haste with the disapproval of their parents, and came to realize that their marriage was never going to work. Then there is the pair of the USA and Canada; this comparison is more subtle, but the novel's title highlights it. Ford does not make any grand statements about the two nations, but the difference in Dell's experience of the two places hangs heavy in the story.
Ford's writing here is assured and assuring, and Dell's voice as a narrator looking back on his life is distinct and compelling. The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Holter Graham is strong; Dell is credible and engaging. The only criticism one might have is that he does not do much to characterize different accents in either part of the novel, when there is plenty of room for doing so. The novel rivals the first two in Ford's Bascombe trilogy in its interest and depth. Psychologically, it's very provocative and pleasing; maybe Dell's father Bev is the most striking character, as a man who regularly breaks the law and yet who Dell is reluctant to characterize as a criminal, because nothing in his home behavior gives any indication of such tendencies or interests. As Dell comments on this, "It's a mystery how we are, a mystery."
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York