Canada by Richard Ford: A review

Dell Parsons, a 66-year-old soon-to-be-retired high school English teacher in Canada, looks back at his life and tells its story. In particular, he tells of the two defining and cataclysmic events that happened when he was fifteen and that set him on the road to his life that would become.

Parsons' voice is a flat, laconic, stream-of-consciousness type story-telling that is deceptively simple. You read a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and think, "Huh, not much there." Then you read on and suddenly it grabs you and you begin to see the significance of that bland sentence pages back and just how it fits into a whole that is greater than its parts. This is the work of a writer who knows what he is doing, who is, in short, a master of his craft.

The first paragraph of Richard Ford's book, Dell Parsons' story, is a hook.
First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more 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.
How could you not continue reading after that?

Dell Parsons and his twin (slightly older) sister Berner were Air Force brats. Their father, an Alabama native, was a career Air Force man who had been a bombardier in World War II. Their mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants in Seattle, became pregnant after a brief relationship with Bev Parsons and the two immediately got married. Thus were their lives changed forever and diverted into streams where they would not otherwise have flowed.

The twins were born and with their parents moved around to various Air Force bases around the country, finally winding up in Great Falls, Montana where their father retired from his military career, after a bit of a dust-up about illegally obtained beef for the officers' dining tables. Because of their constant moves, Dell and Berner never really felt at home anywhere. They were always the outsiders, but they always had each other.

Then their father got it into his head that the best way forward for his family was for him to rob a bank. He convinced his wife to be a part of the scheme and they headed off to North Dakota to implement their "plan." They returned home with their loot of $2500 and were captured almost immediately. The fifteen-year-old twins were left on their own.

Berner, who was the wild one of the duo, ran away to San Francisco. But Dell, ever the obedient son, stayed put as his mother had told him to and eventually her friend, Mildred, came to collect him. 

Mildred heads north with the boy. She intends to deliver him to her brother Arthur in Saskatchewan and so she does. In the course of a few months, Dell's life is uprooted and then changed forever as he learns to work and survive in an alien environment and he witnesses things and is a part of things that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Dell's life story is one of redemption. It could have so easily gone so wrong and yet it doesn't. 

The intervention of a kindly woman puts him on a bus to Winnipeg where he will live with the woman's son and go to school. Eventually, he marries a Canadian woman, becomes a Canadian citizen himself, and makes a good middle-class successful life for himself. But he remembers everything about how he got there.

Richard Ford is a fine writer. I greatly enjoyed his three highly acclaimed Frank Bascombe novels and I looked forward to reading this latest from him. I was not disappointed.


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