American Dream

Book Review: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaCanada by Richard Ford My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

View all my reviews

Wherever I lay my hat...

I have a scrapbook of images that falls somewhere between idea and dream. It is a collection of home interiors and exteriors carefully snipped from the pages of a few favorite shelter magazines.  As you rifle through the glossy pages, themes become apparent: light, comfort, wood, glass, stone, minimal furnishings, natural colors, bare floors, living spaces that radiate from an open kitchen- all oriented toward the out-of-doors, where sandstone and gravel paths wind among raised bed and butterfly gardens. Brendan and I haunt our favorite neighborhoods on long walks, passing lovely homes for sale. We try them on in our mind's eye, sizing up a west-facing backyard that would be perfect for a garden, a garage that could hold Brendan's growing collection of beer-and wine-making apparatus, a fenced yard for the dogs we long to bring home, and the small room at the front of the house that would make a perfect writing space for me. We adore the closely knit community of Phinney-Greenwood, the old world elegance of Queen Anne, the hipster-chic of Wallingford. We envision ourselves walking to favorite coffee shops, to pubs for Friday night IPAs, running on the paths that surround Green Lake or overlook the Olympics, and making the easy bike commute to our workplaces.

But we never take those next steps: the visit our credit union to talk about financing, the call to a real estate agent, not even the Sunday open house to see what $357,000 buys these days (current median home price in our Ballard neighborhood). Experience curbs our enthusiasm; a desire for freedom supersedes our most fervent nesting instincts.

Because we have been there. Four mortgages. First in Illinois, then twice in Washington state, most recently on New Zealand's South Island. We've been renting since we returned stateside at the end of 2007. And we have no plans for anything grander in the near future.

We field the question "Do you think you'll ever settle down and buy a house?" often enough that we've canned our reply. We give each other that look- a half-smile and a chuckle that's supposed to convey irony. One of us summarizes nearly twenty years of marriage with a gently exhaled  "Weeelll...." and it's usually Brendan who says "We've been homeowners. Four times over. Next house we buy will be the last one. And it will have a vineyard, so..." And he trails off. The questioner might think he's kidding. I know he's not, though we haven't quite worked out the details of the vineyard plan, which now include asking Greek's prime minister George Papandreou to allow the European debt deal to proceed so our 401(k)s stop hemorrhaging.

Our previous homes were each modest affairs that needed varying degrees of TLC. We replaced flooring, carpeting, furnaces, plumbing, doors; we sanded, stripped, painted, rototilled, hammered; jacked up one house to repair a foundation, installed a central heating system in another. We landscaped, planted gardens and trees, laid down walkways, and built fences. Our work paid off: homes #1 and #3 each sold within days of entering the market. Home #2 never even had a For Sale sign posted- it was in and out before the ink was dry on the estate agent contract. But we escaped by the skin of our teeth with house #4: Our sweet little bungalow in Cheviot, New Zealand entered the market in mid-2007 as housing bubbles worldwide began to pop and vanish, releasing dreams and life savings into the ether.

Since the housing boom went bust, this nation has had its first real conversations questioning the value the American dream, the one that culminates in home ownership. We're considering that it may not be the best investment in our futures, relative to our incomes and goals. And one cannot escape the central irony of the economic downturn living in Seattle: now that home prices are nearing the reasonable, descending from the stratospheric stupidity of the mid-2000s, credit is tight, incomes are falling, and consumer confidence is low.

After so many years of owning, after the thousands of dollars and buckets of sweat equity poured into restoring and renovating, I no longer equate stability and security with owning a home. If anything, I feel a greater sense of security because we are free from the commitment of a mortgage and the obligation of upkeep. The ability to make a change at nearly a moment's notice is both liberating and reassuring. I feel a greater connection to my career, chosen and pursued for the love of it, not the money. And I feel less afraid to take chances and pursue other goals because our only obligation is a rent check.

But that doesn't mean we don't dream. On the contrary- we have so many! I have a scrapbook full of them as my shelter vision slowly takes shape. But I'm willing to lay a different sort of foundation, to savor the freedom we have now and take time to build our future. Somehow, life at 42 feels far less urgent than it did at 32.

And from our little apartment, we walk to our favorite coffee shops, to the pub for Friday night IPAs, run on the paths that surround Green Lake or overlook the Olympics, and make the easy bike commute to our workplaces. Somebody else mows the lawn.

I could live here...Or here.  Definitely here.

This, however, would make me commit hara-kiri