Canada by Richard Ford

I’ve had my eye on Richard Ford’s novels for some time. He appears to be a tremendously popular writer with a loyal following, so when I saw Canada and read the synopsis, I knew I wanted to read the book. This story is told by Dell Parsons, now in his 60s, but he’s at the awkward age of 15 when the story begins in 1960 Montana. And the novel starts with a bombshell:

First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

Now that’s a hell of a first sentence, and it’s followed by:

The robbery is the most important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first. Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank.

 Ok, I’m in. Tell me the story.

For approximately the first half of the novel, Dell describes his family and the events that led up to the bank robbery. Dell’s father, Bev, originally from Alabama, was a WWII pilot, but became a supply officer in peacetime.  Dell’s mother, Neeva is a child of Polish Jewish immigrants. It’s a wild mismatch–a marriage born from the uncertainty of WWII, and now that the war is over, the vast differences between Dell and his twin sister Berner’s parents only seem to be growing. Bev’s continued military career helps sideline the family’s problems, and with continual relocations, impermanence covers some of the tracks of an unhappy marriage. Dell says that after years of transfers from base to base, and one school after another, the family “came to a stop in Great Falls, Montana, in 1956.” Dell’s mother, who loathes Montana and its lack of “organized society” is a substitute teacher, but even though she works within the community, she appears to suffer from “growing alienation.” Meanwhile, Dell’s father works at the local base until he’s discharged from the Air Force under a cloud of disgrace. This is when things begin to go horribly wrong for Dell and his family. 

The first half of the novel worked well for this reader–albeit the pacing of the novel is somewhat slow. With the first dramatic lines which mention bank robbery and murder, it then takes almost half the book to get to the point where the action starts. This in itself isn’t a problem, but it does mean that for approximately 200 pages, a man in his 60s relates the events that took place over 4o years earlier as he remembers them. Dell tells his story, slowly savouring each memory, sometimes going back over covered material and adding detail–as if through the telling of the tale, it will all begin to make sense somehow. Yet as a narrator, Dell is flawed. A lifetime of experiences have failed to illuminate the events that took place. For example, Dell mentions several times that he doesn’t quite understand why his mother chose to participate in the bank robbery. She’s even described as “weak,” and yet to this reader, it seemed fairly obvious that Dell’s mother agreed to join in the bank robbery in order to spare her son’s involvement. 

On the positive side, Ford nailed the nomadic nature of the military family, the ever-shifting sense of impermanence and sense of alienation. He was also spot on with his depiction of the military family who findsthemselves increasingly at odds with one another once the continual moving and unpacking has ground to a permanent halt. For this reader, the second section of the novel–the part that takes place in Canada–seemed like emotional overkill–almost a sadistic exercise in just what one can do with a young narrator who can’t really do much to help his own circumstances. Ultimately this is a very sad tale, and the secondary events stretched credulity–that or Dell is one of the unluckiest characters in American fiction.

I know I’m in the minority opinion here, for Ford seems to be a much-loved American writer, and there’s a lot here that is quintessentially American. Here’s what should be an all-American family: Dad, a war hero of sorts, mother a Jewish immigrant, but they fail to fit into American society. Of course, the iconic escape to Canada is part of the American mythos–if all else goes wrong, head north to Canada or South to Mexico depending on one’s preference. Canada seems to argue that when one is cursed with bad fortune, there’s no escape, and that depressing cloud certainly follows Dell to the end of the book. Dell’s father, Bev is by far the most interesting character in the book. He’s one of those charming, impecunious, foolish fellows full of brilliant ideas tainted with fecklessness and dishonesty.

For another review, go to Kevin From Canada

Review copy from the publisher

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Ford Richard

15 responses to “Canada by Richard Ford

  1. leroyhunter

    Sounds like Ford let you down after that opening. I’ve read the first 2 Bascombe books, and I’m interested in this purely becasue he writes so damn well. My experience with him so far is that he prizes interiority and meandering over plot and page-turning, but sometimes that’s what you’re in the mood for I guess.

    • As you probably know, this was my first Ford so I have not read the Bascombe books. Aren’t they considered his best work?

      • leroyhunter

        I think they are Guy, although I know his short stuff is well-regarded as well. In recent years he seems to have become something of a seer of the short stort, editing or introducing umpteen collections.

  2. This is not for me at all. I have had two Ford reading experiences. The short stories which I thought were excellent and Independence Day which made me come to the conclusion he isn’t for me. It dragged and I just couldn’t relate. Well written but just not really very captivating. I feel similar about Philip Roth.

  3. I’d say we had the same experience with Canada — Leroy’s observation that he prizes “interiority and meandering” certainly applies to this novel.
    I do think the Bascombe novels are better works, although they share that introspective, slow-moving characteristic. As you noted about this book, Ford is good at capturing some things (the fate of the ever-moving military family in peacetime, for example) and memory says the Bascombe novels have more of those moments than this one did.

  4. Kevin: you mentioned in your review that you didn’t think that the character of a 15 year old boy was quite strong enough to carry the tale (paraphrasing here), and I think you’re right. Megan Abbott managed it in The End of Everything–and it was the same sort of set up–someone older telling the tale set in the teenage years.

  5. This is the second disappointing review I’ve seen of this one. The setup doesn’t much grab me anyway, nor the prose from the quotes, so it’s a definite pass from me.

  6. Thanks for the warning, I’ll know not to buy this one if I see it in a bookstore.

  7. Pingback: Book Review: Richard Ford's Canada - Opinionless

  8. You have reflected on this novel and have come up with some helpful insights , particularly the unreliability of a 65 year old man as a narrator of 50 year old events. I quite like slow, meandering books so this suited me rather wel . However I am a big fan of Ford. The Frank Boscombe books are very different to the Canada and I would think you might enjoy them rather more.

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