"First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later."
When fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons' parents rob a bank, his sense of a happy, knowable life is forever shattered. In an instant, this private cataclysm drives his life across a threshold that can never be uncrossed.
His parents' arrest and imprisonment mean a threatening and uncertain future for Dell and his twin sister, Berner. Willful and burning with resentment, Berner flees their home in Montana, abandoning her brother and her life. But Dell is not completely alone. A family friend intervenes, spiriting him across the Canadian border, in hopes of delivering him to a better life. There, afloat on the prairie of Saskatchewan, Dell is taken in by Arthur Remlinger, an enigmatic and charismatic American, whose suave reserve masks a dark and violent nature.
Undone by the calamity of his parents' robbery and arrest, Dell struggles under the vast prairie sky to remake himself and define the adults he thought he knew and loved. But his search for grace and peace only moves him nearer a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.
A true masterwork of haunting and spectacular vision from one of our greatest writers, Canada is a profound novel of boundaries traversed, innocence lost and reconciled, and the mysterious and consoling bonds of family. Told in spare elegant prose, resonant and luminous, it is destined to become a classic.
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.
Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren't strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would've thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular - although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
My father, Bev Parsons, was a country boy born in 1923, in Marengo County, Alabama, and came out of high school in 1939, burning to be in the Army Air Corps - the branch that became the Air Force. He went in at Demopolis, trained at Randolph, near San Antonio, wanted to be a fighter pilot, but lacked the aptitude and so learned bombardiering instead. He flew the B25s, the light-medium Mitchells, that were seeing duty in the Philippines, and later over Osaka, where they rained destruction on the earth - the enemy and undeserving people alike. He was a tall, winning, smiling handsome six footer (he barely fitted into his bombardier's compartment), with a big square, expectant face and knobby cheekbones and sensuous lips and long, attractive feminine eyelashes. He had shiny white teeth and short black hair he was proud of - as he was of his name. Bev. Captain Bev Parsons. He never conceded that Beverly was a woman's name in most people's minds. It grew from Anglo-Saxon roots, he said. "It's a common name in England. Vivian, Gwen and Shirley are men's names there. No one confuses them with women." He was a non-stop talker, was open-minded for a southerner, had nice obliging manners which should've taken him far in the Air Force, but didn't. His wide hazel eyes would dart around any room he was in, finding someone to pay attention to him - my sister and me, ordinarily. He told corny jokes in a southern theatrical style, could do card tricks and magic tricks, could detach his thumb and replace it, make a handkerchief disappear and come back. He could play boogie-woogie piano, sometimes would "talk Dixie" to us and sometimes like Amos 'n Andy. He had lost some hearing by flying in the Mitchells, and which he was sensitive about. But he looked sharp in his "honest" GI haircut and blue captain's tunic and generally conveyed a warmth that was genuine and made my twin sister and me love him. It was also probably the reason my mother became attracted to him (though she couldn't have been more different from him or unsuited to him), and got pregnant from their one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returned airmen, near where he was re-training to learn supply-officer duties at Fort Lewis, in March 1945 - when no one needed him to drop bombs anymore. They were married immediately when they found out. Her parents, who lived in Tacoma and were Jewish immigrants from Poland, didn't approve. My mother's life changed forever after that - and not for the better.
It's enough to say that they weren't made for each other - the only children of Scotch-Irish, Alabama backwoods timber estimators and educated Jewish mathematics teachers from Poznan who'd escaped after 1918, and came to Washington State through Canada. My mother's parents had also been musicians and popular semi-professional concertizers in Poland, but had become school custodians in Tacoma - of all places. Being Jews meant little to them by then, just an old, exacting, constricted way of life they were happy to put behind them in a land where there apparently were no Jews.
My mother, Neeva Kamper (short for Geneva), was a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly, brown hair, downy vestiges of which ran down her jaw line. She had thick eyebrows and a shiny, thin-skinned forehead under which her veins were visible, and a pale indoor complexion that made her appear fragile - which she wasn't. My father jokingly said people where he was from in Alabama called her hair "Jew hair," or else "immigrant hair," but he liked it and loved her. (She never seemed to pay him much attention). She had small, delicate hands whose nails she kept manicured and shined and was vain about and that she gestured with absently. She owned a skeptical frame of mind, was an intent listener when we talked to her, and had a wit that could turn biting. She wore frameless glasses, read French poetry, often used terms like "couche-marde" or "trou de cul," which my sister and I didn't understand. She wrote poems in brown ink bought through the mail, and kept a journal we weren't permitted to read, and normally had a slightly nose-elevated, astigmatized expression of perplexity - which became true of her, and may always have been true. Before she married my father and quickly had my sister and me she'd graduated at age eighteen from Whitman College in Walla Walla, had worked in a book store, featured herself possibly as a bohemian and a poet, and hoped someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from who she did marry - conceivably a college professor, which would've given her the life she felt she was intended for. She was only thirty-four, in 1960, the year these events occurred. But she already had "serious lines" beside her nose - which was small and pinkish at its tip - and her large, penetrating gray-green eyes had dusky lids that made her seem foreign and slightly sad and dissatisfied - which she was. She possessed a pretty, thin neck, and a sudden, unexpected smile that showed off her small teeth and girlish, heart-shaped mouth, though it was a smile she rarely practiced - except on my sister and me. We realized she was an unusual-looking person - dressed as she typically was in olive-color slacks and baggy-sleeved cotton blouses and hemp-and-cotton shoes she must've sent away to the west coast for - since you couldn't buy such things in Great Falls. And she only seemed more unusual standing reluctantly beside our tall handsome, out-going father. But it was rarely the case that we went "out" as a family, or ate in restaurants, so that we hardly noticed how they appeared in the world, among strangers. To us, life in our house seemed normal.
Excerpted from Canada by Richard Ford. Copyright © 2012 by Richard Ford. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Richard Ford's novel, Canada, is a book that reveals its spoilers early: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later," says Dell Parsons, the 60-something narrator of the story.
Canada essentially consists of two narratives: the robbery in the first, serving as propellant for what follows in the second. Fifteen year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner, are products of a marriage that should never have been. Dell's dad, Bev Parsons, a gregarious Southerner from Alabama, takes an early retirement from the Air Force and decides to settle in Great Falls, Montana. He brings with him his scholarly Jewish wife, the daughter of immigrants resettled in Tacoma.
At the vortex of the events is 15-year-old Dell who watches as the life he dreams of having - high school in the fall, participating in the school chess club - slowly starts disintegrating after his parents rob the Agricultural National Bank in Creekmore, North Dakota as a way of shaking off debt.
It takes Richard Ford about half the book to get to the robbery and a reader can be forgiven if his or her attention wanders a bit. Ford's descriptions of the Montana countryside and the Parsons' cramped life on the fringes of society, however, are beautifully and leisurely done. If Ford takes his time building up to the life-altering event, it is because he delves into the teens' psyches and into the effects that even small actions and misinterpreted reactions can have on them. The laconic pace mirrors Dell's own stifling and apprehensive view of the restricted world he sees. It's heart-wrenching to watch Dell figure out the adult world with just his less-than-model parents as guides. "Things were happening around me," he remembers. "My part was to find a way to be normal. Children know normal better than anyone." Except of course, Dell doesn't. That he and his sister have to cobble together some kind of "normal" through the fractured prisms of their parents' tragic (and wholly avoidable) mistakes is what makes Canada such a moving read. It is hard enough for children to make sense of their world when their parents are on sure footing. But when parents are still trying to make sense of the order of things around them, what measure of success can the kids hope for?
A modicum of success - or at least a pale imitation of it - does eventually visit Dell in Canada where he is transported to the vast plains of Saskatchewan by a distant family friend, Mildred. By this time, Dell's parents are in jail and sister Berner, has left to carve out her life according to her own plans. Mildred drops Dell off with her brother, Arthur Remlinger, somebody who is himself running away from a shady past. "A.R." owns the Leonard hotel in the fictional town of Fort Royal and Dell works odd jobs during the goose-hunting season when tourists from America visit. But as it turns out, tragedy follows Dell even to the remote plains of Saskatchewan and, once again, his life is recast as a result of an adult's follies.
Canada is a big book in every sense of the word - set against a vast, stark landscape, dealing with heavy metaphors. It is a beautifully crafted novel; yet its languid pace, especially in the first half of the book, will unfortunately lose many readers. In the end, Canada emerges as a wonderful, deeply contemplative look at some of the most essential questions of all our lives: How do you deal with loss? Are there second acts in life? Exactly how fluid are boundaries?
Dell quotes the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats who once said, "Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent." What makes Canada so compelling is that it shows just how much damage one impulsive act can cause - damage that a person can spend a lifetime trying to undo. It is no coincidence that the adult-Dell loves the work of Thomas Hardy, an author known to create characters that encounter sudden transitions and crossroads. Just as in Hardy's stories, the roles that chance and fate play loom large in Richard Ford's novel. Impersonation and deception are great themes in American literature, Dell points out. But in Canadian literature, not so much. In Canada, Dell seems to imply, you accept your fate and weather the elements, trying to carve out a life of grace - making something whole again that had once been horribly rent.
Reviewed by Poornima Apte
In subdued, even flat, prose, Ford lays out the central mysteries of Dell's young life, and although the narrative voice here is neither as compelling nor as rich as that found in Ford's great Bascombe trilogy, devoted Ford fans will find that it resonates well beyond the page.
A book from Ford is always an event and his prose is assured and textured, but the whole is not heavily significant.
Segmented into three parts, the narrative slowly builds into a gripping commentary on life's biggest question: Why are we here? Ford's latest work successfully expands our understanding of and sympathy for humankind.
Starred Review. At the start of the novel's coda, when Dell explains that he teaches his students 'books that to me seem secretly about my young life,' he begins the list with The Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. Such comparisons seem well-earned.
Rated of 5
The book is not really about Canada (half of it takes place in Montana) but about borders and a lack of borders...and how a single event that one has no control over can catapult an ordinary life into chaos in the blink of an eye...I was hooked...I love Richard Ford's writing!
Rated of 5
by bobbie d
Go Back to Canada
The New York Times review was excellent. My husband and I couldn't wait to get our hands on this book. I read about 50 pages and have no idea why anyone would want to read this. Picked it up a couple of times and finally decided it was a waste of time. And I really didn't care what happened! My husband gave up much sooner. Guess it's not just our kind of book!
The vast prairies of Saskatchewan, where one can easily be "unimaginably bored" are the perfect setting for Richard Ford's Canada. Bordering Montana and North Dakota, it is one of two Canadian provinces that is completely landlocked (Alberta is the other one) and has no geographical features distinguishing its boundaries. It is over 250,000 square miles (over 650,000 square kilometers) - almost the size of Texas. The province's name has its origins in the Plains Indian word, kisiskatchewan, meaning "the river that flows swiftly"; a reference to the Saskatchewan River.
Interestingly, the city of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan province is named after the saskatoon berry, which is often used by the province's aboriginal people in making pemmican. Pemmican is a kind of meat dish made with fat drippings and protein that uses saskatoon or other berries as preservatives and to add flavor. The dehydrated version is considered a good snack to have on long hikes.
Many Canadians think "wheat" when they think of Saskatchewan - the vast, undulating prairies are perfect for growing all sorts of grains and cereals (barley, rye, oats), oilseeds (flax, canola, mustard), and pulse crops (lentils, chickpeas, peas). In fact, agriculture is one of the primary economic vehicles in the province - it grows 54% of Canada's wheat, and according to the Government of Saskatchewan, it contains 44% of Canada's total cultivated farmland.
The province's most famous residents might well be The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), originally known as the North West Mounted Police. The Mounties have their training academy in the city of Regina, Saskatchewan's capital, and the academy churns out over 1,000 new graduates each year.
The prairie landscape and woods attract millions of geese and other waterfowl every year - which makes Saskatchewan a prime spot for hunting waterfowl. In Canada, Dell works as an assistant for American tourists who visit during hunting season in early fall. Guided game-hunting excursions are quite common in Saskatchewan and attract many out-of-towners. According to the tourism board, "Permission to hunt on private land must be obtained in the southern portion of the province. Saskatchewan has several parcels of land that have been purchased for hunting by the government and the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation."
Did you know? Saskatchewan has a town called "Love" which holds an annual "love" festival as part of its Valentine Winter Festival. Events include sawing, nail driving, hatchet throwing, pillow fighting, arm wrestling and a power saw competition!