"Canada" by Richard Ford

 Richard Ford has a well deserved reputation as being one of the major American writers today.  I have found his writing lyrically poetical  as well as earthy and grounded in the lives of relatively ordinary people - powerfully  evoking a culture and the American landscape . I was intrigued therefore to read his latest work called , Canada,  and to try to understand his purpose in this case. However one does learn, I think, that this work is about America and being American also .  I will now turn to the book and look at some elements of the plot, style, characterisations and apparent purpose.

From the beginning Canada displays  elements of  an unusual  action story. The narrator, Dell Parsons,  introduces the reader to his family in the first chapter.  He tells us right at the beginning  that his parents committed a bank robbery in the Montana region in the the nineteen sixties . This sets himself  and his twin sister when they were just fifteen, on a strange  life course. The intriguingly narrated story gives plenty of evidence of why this has been the case. For example, Dell  warns  us in the very first paragraph that he is going to tell us  about some murders  later thus  producing  an element of suspense for the reader. The first section of the book (almost half) is about the four members of the family and the circumstances leading up to the parents arrest for the robbery .   Following  the arrest and gaoling of his parents , Dell  is whisked away  to Canada by a well-meaning friend of the family in order to keep  him from child care authorities in Montana. His twin sister Bernie runs away from home herself to California.

The second part of the book centres on Dell's life  in the few years after his escape to Canada to a frontier-like  town in Saskatchewan .  He is left there at fifteen in the "care" of a hotel owner  - a relative of the female family friend  who has taken him there from Montana. We learn later she has done this at the request of Dell's mother who is now serving a long gaol sentence. Dell's consequent and sometimes dangerous  adventures which find him observing  a range of remarkable characters and situations,  forms most of  the rest of the book. Dell is looking back  narrating the story of his past as a contentedly married school teacher  in his sixties and as a Canadian citizen. We find that  Dell's aim   - to live quietly and  learn  is achieved after he settles in Canada assisted by another benefactor . Throughout all of this ,  we cant help noting , he is the perfect observer . Dell is telling his story as a now settled sixty year old looking back on these early adventurous years . Overall this is an amazing plot with elements of rite of passage but the strength of the book is with the writing itself.

Ford is above all else a fine writer and  observer of humanity. His  has the ability  to convey vivid  word pictures and the flavour of the environment of the story  - both human and natural.   He achieves this in Canada as he does in his other many works including the Bascombe trilogy, however for me the narration style  in this book doesnt work as well as in other works by Ford.  I am not sure why- maybe it was just the tone.

On the characterisations  in Canada I  have no misgivings  - they are observed and described to perfection especially  Dell's family.  I thought the voice in this the first half of the book was the clearest and I found  special enjoyment in the young, kind and keen observances of the parents as they  jockey around each when  planning  to undertake the desperate robbery.

One question that kept coming before me with my reading of Canada was about the purpose of this particular story.  I dont think it is to tell us about the qualities of Canada as such - only in that it brings out the sense which  Americans may have of the safety net  on the continent for  a country very like  their own in many ways and so very close by  -  something like we might think of New Zealand and like which  NZers might think of Australia.  It is definitely about memory  - perhaps a memory which is a little too good and not quite fallible enough is part of the  little problem I have with the story. And possibly there is just too much adventure clouding the observations a bit.   Overall I found it a reasonably  good  read by a superior writer (one of the very best  in my view) but not as effective in conveying   the essence of being  American   as in  other works of his such as  The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land - these three making up the wonderful Bascombe trilogy which I strongly recommend.

I would be grateful to hear of any other views  - including those which may contradict mine.