I feel honored when a book teaches me something new about reading, when a writer has the confidence in his story to pull no punches with his writing, trusting in the reader’s intelligence to absorb a story without telling her what she should feel.
What Richard Ford teaches me with the exquisite Canada is patience. He teaches me to pull back, hold on, allow the plot to reel out while keeping a closer eye on the characters and their actions and reactions. What he offers in return for my patience is writing that makes me nearly weep with envy: clean yet evocative, each detail chosen to express character and place without eclipsing the reader's imagination.
The narrator, Dell Parsons, looks back across five decades to 1960, the year his mother and father robbed a bank in a small town in the plains of eastern Montana. From Dell's tone - sometimes tender, sometimes ironic but always mild and thoughtful - you are fairly certain he turns out okay, despite the crises he endured during his formative years. These crises take a while to unfold. Ford introduces the bank robbery in the novel's opening line, but maintains a brilliant balance between tension and torpidity by circling around the incident for more than one hundred pages.
In the interim he builds the portrait of a family who misses the mark of the American Dream. Bev Parsons, a husband with a handsome head in the clouds, leaves the Air Force and settles his wandering family in Great Falls, believing his charisma will lead to easy success, free from the structured demands of the military. He is mis-matched physically and intellectually with Neeva, his diminutive wife who rarely looks up from the drudgery of her life lest she be forced to acknowledge her disappointments. Their offspring - an awkward daughter saddled with an ugly face and the unfortunate name of Berner, and her younger-by-six-minutes twin, Dell, blessed with his father’s looks and an accommodating spirit – are raised with love, if not much stability.
Dell looks back at the decisions his parents made, at the moments when they approached the cliff and could have turned around, without judgment or bitterness. This is remarkable, because their foolishness upended his life; the bank robbery is only the beginning of a free fall that ends in murder, suicide and the dissolution of his family.
At the end of his life as he knows it, Dell sets out on a melancholy Odyssey from adolescence to adulthood. His internal journey first parallels a literal one as he moves from Great Falls to Partreau, Saskatchewan, a near-ghost town in the desolate prairies of central Canada. And from there his story continues as he fends for himself in a small world of cast-off adults.
Canada's story is created by a landscape of reflection and resolution, of lives that turn on a dime, where the border between possibility and no turning back can be crossed only once, but consequences follow forever.
Ford’s deliberative style is like a skilled horse rider’s loose hold on the reins – he doesn’t need to make the obvious moves to steer the horse – it takes only a slight movement of thigh or heel to communicate his desires. Equally, Ford communicates soul-shifting menace through the subtle nature of his characters and his setting- what he leaves out speaks to the power of what remains.