Readers who pick up Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, expecting a Frank Bascombe character are in for a surprise. Canada is far removed from the Frank Bascombe trilogy in tone, setting, characters, and subject matter.
At its heart, Canada is about crossing borders—not the physical one that separates the two nations. The border theme is at work on many levels. The main character, Dell, crosses the border between a child’s innocence and the sober realities of life. Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, cross the border between normalcy and desperation, as evidenced by the shocking bank robbery they pull off that leads to their demise and destroys their family. Berner, Dell’s twin sister, crosses a border of her own, leaving the house after her parents’ arrest for the independence she craves.
The book’s dramatic opening line sets the stage: “First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Bev Parsons has just retired from the Air Force after twenty years, but he is ill-prepared for civilian life in Great Falls, Montana. After failing as a car salesman, he gets involved in a scheme with a group of Native Americans to sell stolen beef. When a deal goes awry, the Native Americans come after Bev for the money, which leads to the ill-fated decision to enlist his wife’s aid to rob a bank in North Dakota. When his parents are arrested, Dell is taken by a friend of his mother’s to a desolate outpost in Saskatchewan to escape a bleak fate as a ward of the state. Life on the harsh prairie is not much better. Dell works at a hotel for the mysterious Arthur Remlinger, who is on the run from his own past.
Dell is forced to grow up quickly, as he sees and experiences things no 15-year-old should. He learns to adapt, to cope with what seems an impossible life. After the bank robbery that destroyed his family, Dell reflects, “It’s best to see our life and the activities that ended it, as two sides of one thing that have to be held in mind simultaneously to properly understand—the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous–one so close to the other. Any different way of looking at our life threatens to disparage the crucial , rational, commonplace part we lived, the part in which everything makes sense to those on the inside—and without which none of this is worth hearing about.”
His parents’ disastrous choices leave Dell in a conundrum. “For reasons of our parents’ disastrous choices, I believe I’m both distrustful of normal life and in equal parts desperate for it.”
As she drives Dell across the border into Canada, Mildred Remlinger tells him, “Your life’s going to be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present. Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing.”
For most of the people he meets, Dell discovers crossing the border into Canada didn’t change their lives, a fact Arthur Remlinger acknowledges. “You might as well go back. I would if I were you. Everybody should enjoy a second chance.”
What he finally discovers is that life is about crossing borders. “My conceit is always “crossing a border;” from a way of living that doesn’t work toward one that does. It can also be about crossing a line and never being able to come back.”
Ford chooses to tell the tale from the perspective of Dell as a 66-year-old retired teacher living in Canada. This perspective lends a maturity and a depth to the character. We see Dell develop as he must endure harrowing circumstances, as seen from a sober, mature lens.
This is a novel the reader must read slowly and savor. Dell’s remarkable journey is its strength. His survival gives him the gift of wisdom. As he looks back on his life, Dell states, “What I know is, 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 subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find.”
Canada showcases Ford at his best. I highly recommend it.