Recently I was traveling in the southwestern United States and my vacation read was the book Canada by Richard Ford. My fellow bus passengers must have wondered whether my book selection represented some sort of patriotic gesture (like wearing a flag pin on your coat)…
Richard Ford is actually an American writer who lives in the state of Maine. His novel Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. I had noticed Ford’s latest book Canada on recent bestseller lists and was frankly intrigued by the title and the subject matter. A teenager’s “normal” life is interrupted by his parents’ decision to rob a bank.
The teenager, Dell Parsons, serves as the narrator. In the opening paragraph of the book the two major events of the novel are disclosed – robbery and murder. Ford has a gift for creating vivid, memorable characters. The tiny, stern Jewish mother, is countered by the brash and scheming Southern father. Dell’s parents were an ill-suited couple with questionable parenting skills, and a robbery plan so simplistic it enters the realm of comedy. Given their arrest, Dell’s mother arranges for her two kids to be “saved” by a surprise – which turns out to be a trip to Canada.
Dell’s sister runs away, leaving Dell to take the fateful trip to Canada alone. I was curious to discover how our country would be portrayed in this book (given that the author is American). Canada initially appears to be a rustic, uncultured wasteland that is sparsely populated and inhospitable. Of course the environment mirrors the state of Dell’s young psyche at the time. Canada did not save Dell, but it eventually becomes his home, and the place where he finds a job and a wife and the stability so sadly lacking in his youth. Richard Ford explained in an interview that “America beats on you so hard the whole time. You are constantly being pummelled by other people’s rights and their sense of patriotism. So the American’s experience of going to Canada, or at least my experience, is that you throw all that clamour off. Which is a relief sometimes.”
Ford tells a masterful tale which grows more compelling as the novel progresses. Told in three parts, we are witness to the narrator’s progression from boyhood to manhood, confronting another demon in the form of the violent and unpredictable Arthur Remlinger. Tension builds towards the long-anticipated murder scene. The kindness of an acquaintance offers Dell escape, and a chance at a happy life looking forward, not back.
Dell’s insightful wisdom makes this book a great read…it is a character-driven novel with substance. If you would like to know more about the author, check out this interesting interview in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, which includes the author’s own book recommendations. If you prefer an audio clip, the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers had an extended conversation with Richard Ford at the Writers at Woody Point Festival in Gros Morne National Park. Enjoy!