Richard Ford’s Canada unravels like a long spaghetti Western. Narrated by Dell Parsons, now a retired math teacher, recalling the turning point in his life – when his parents robbed a bank when he was fifteen years old, the geography of Canada does not appear until the second half of the book. By then, clearly, the plot is secondary.
As Dell describes the details of his mismatched parents and the strangeness of his twin sister, their lives after Dell’s father retires from the Air Force take on a surreal simplicity. No one is satisfied: his mother yearns for a better life, preferably with another husband in another place; his father, the Alabama hustler, is always looking for easy street; his sister, Berner, in the throes of adolescent hormones, closes herself off. Ford concentrates on the minutia of their lives, so that you readily “accept and understand” them. Knowing the bank robbery has happened and the parents have been sent to jail – in the first page – you are still compelled to know more.
To avoid the juvenile authorities, Dell’s mother has arranged for her friend Mildred to drive the children to Saskatchewan, Canada to live with Mildred’s brother, Arthur Remlinger. Berner runs away, but Dell escapes to Canada; the second half of the book creates a seemingly unrelated story to the first half with Dell trying to adjust to a new hard life, while trying to forget his old one. Eventually, Arthur, a fugitive himself, involves Dell in a bigger crime than bank robbery.
Ford ends the narrative by reuniting Dell, a sixty-five year old Canadian math teacher, with his dying sister, startlingly contrasting the effect of their childhood trauma on their lives.
You’ll need time and patience for this book. Ford’s astute observations coined in tight phrases kept me reading to the anticlimactic ending:
“…life changing events can seem not what they are.”
“Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present.”
“Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was mad about it.”
“…you have a better chance in life – of surviving it – if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all…to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find…”