Richard Ford is a writer who I’ve admired for decades. And, who wouldn’t be an admirer of this cliffhanger of an opener?
“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
I once met a woman after the tragic death of her husband and she said that she forgave the killer because her choice was to either let that event be the defining moment of her life or to continue living. I still don’t fully understand, but I think it’s what Ford is slowly unwinding in this epic story about how 15-year-old Dell Parson’s life is derailed by the bank robbery his parents commit.
Unlike in The Sportswriter, the first novel I read of Ford’s, each moment isn’t imbued with significance. Some things just happen and other things happen with meaning. The writing is more mature, but it’s also a slower pace so I’m not sure whether I liked Canada or whether I liked finishing Canada.
The novel is divided into three parts, and I found the first the most interesting as it sets up the bank robbery and immediate capture of Dell’s parents (it wasn’t exactly well thought out). The setting is Great Falls, Montana in the 1950s and Dell’s dad is a military man, then car salesman, then used car salesman, then ... a bit of an everything man. Each failure takes him closer and closer to committing a crime to get money, in the hopes that the cash can be used to pay people off.
The second part describes Dell’s family falling apart. Both parents are arrested. His twin sister runs away, and Dell is left to trust a family friend who is falling through on Dell’s mother’s plans to have both kids squirrelled away in Canada. Dell is left across the border in Canada with a mysterious American who’s running a bar/hotel and organizing hunting trips, among other things. But his shady past rears its ugly head and becomes just another in a series of unfortunate events that Dell has to extract himself from in order to survive on his own.
The third section reunites Dell with his long-lost twin sister Berner. She’s also in a dark place, and it’s interesting as a reader to think about twins, separated, and how they’ve lived their lives. In particular whether you let your parents’ robbery be the defining moment of your life or not. For Dell, I’d say it’s a significant moment but not the defining moment. He is more detached from the world than damaged by it, whereas Berner, who thought she was so grownup and above it all, is actually trapped by it.
Canada is a different type of Richard Ford so if you’re unfamiliar with his other works, then this one might seem like a masterpiece. For me, I couldn’t help but reflect on the writing I knew vs. the writing I had in front of me. Stylistically it’s wonderful, just not what I was expecting. There is a culmination of strength to this novel, which mirrors Dell’s growth from adolescences to adulthood. The novel is impressive but not one of my favourites.