"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.



John Kennedy said...

This is not a novel I would have read without your encouragement, Faye. The subject matter did not sound appealing, but it turned out to be more interesting, rewarding, and enjoyable (if that is the right word for a somewhat grim work) than I expected.

Critical opinion of the book seems divided. The professional critics I encountered all hailed it as a beautifully written masterpiece, but while some of the non-professinals who expressed their views on Amazon.com agreed, others complained that it was slow, ponderous, and all but unreadable. I did find it slow at times, but I was impressed by Ford's ability to evoke time and place, and by his characterisation. This is no 'page turner', despite some claims to the contrary, but at the end one feels that one has got to know the characters, and the places described seem very real. It is noticeable that there are very few of either - just two places, a real one in the US and a fictional one in Canada, and only eight characters, in quite a long book.

For me part of the interest was Ford's delineation of differences between the US and Canada. At one level Dell's crossing the border into Canada is symbolic of his crossing from one way of life into another utterly different one, but Ford does stress the similarities and differences between the two countries in a thought-provoking way.

One of the achievements of the book is the way Ford makes the intrusion of the extraordinary into the world of the ordinary convincing. The use of Dell both as an adolescent and as a man nearing retirement, and the intermingling of these two voices, seems to contribute to this.

I won't claim to be rushing out to read more Ford - there were dull pasages which were a slog, even if they did contribute to the overall achievement. But 'Canada' was far better than I dared hope. Thank you.

Faye said...

Dear John,
Thanks for your comments - good insights as usual . I like that observation about the extraordinary intruded into the world of the ordinary which i think you are right about. It is a very strong feature of the book ,now that you draw it my attention, and one that highlights the "thriller" and "ominous" elements of the story well .
This book is a bit different according to my reading than his immediate last book which I loved "Lay of the Land" which is much more regular in its settings and relationships.
On this note I looked up a quote from the book which had interested me at the time in chapter 11 on page 71 of the Bloomsbury paperback viz,
"""….would you have thought there was a man getting ready to commit an armed robbery? No you wouldnt. Though admittedly I am intrigued by how ordinary behaviour exists so close beside it opposite" This very quote interested me at the time i read it and you have highlighted it again for me. Thanks.
I have a feeling , also, the author was experimenting with "Canada" - maybe as has been said about what it is to be American compared with Canadian.

The other point you make about Dell interests me too - as I said in my notes i had some misgivings about the naturalness of the Memory he was exhibiting. I am not sure it worked all that well however the book is complex and I might have misread some of the emphases.

As you say though it was worth the read - and he continues to impress me overall.


John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye.

Dell does have a remarkable memory, for a man in his mid-sixties recalling events of fifty years before. Was your worry that he was so totally able to recall and recreate his adolescent mindset? First person narrators in novels seem often to be able to recall conversations of years before verbatim and do things wellnigh impossible for most of us in the real world, and mostly we just suspend disbelief. Do you think this was unusually difficult in this case?

Faye said...

Dear John,
Yes my slightly disbelieving thought was that he seemed to be presented to us as an adolescent - something like -a nice Holden Caulfield - and to be telling the story as if he were an adolescent . The style seemed to suggest we had an adolescent telling the story about the parents robbery etc and and his consequent rough time in Canada as a young person . I think i could accept that fiction (ie it being told by an adolescent or quite young person in early 20s say) easier than finding out we were listening to a mature person telling the story in a somewhat naive way.
s i have mentioned I admire Ford very much but I am not sure he got the voices right this time.