Canada, by Richard Ford


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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.

Those are the opening paragraphs of Richard Ford’s Canada so, despite how it might seem, quoting them is not a spoiler. It is worth noting, however, that it will take the author almost 200 pages until we get to the robbery that he is going to first tell us about — Canada is about what lies behind the action, not the action itself.

Canada is a memory book, brought to life almost 50 years after the events as the narrator looks back on the crucial year of his youth. Dell Parsons, the first person narrator in the book itself, is 15 and living in Great Falls, Montana, when the novel opens in 1960. His father, Bev, was a bombardier who served in the Phillipines and Japan during the war; he stayed in the Air Force as a supply officer after the war which meant the Parsons family were service brats who moved around America for the next decade before they “landed” in Great Falls four years earlier.

Bev is Alabama-born, with a healthy dose of Dixie charm. He’d used that charm on Neeva Kamper back in 1945 in Fort Lewis, Washington when he was retraining after hostilities ended. The fling resulted in the pregnancy which produced Dell and his twin sister, Berner. Bev and Neeva did what was then the right thing and got married: “…while from a distance, it may seem that our parents were merely not made for one another, it was more true that when our mother married our father, it betokened a loss, and her life changed forever — and not in a good way — as she surely must’ve believed.”

Neeva is half Jewish and, in character and interests, is the opposite of Bev and his Dixie charm. She both reads and writes poetry and, in the words of her 15-year-old son, was meant “someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from who she did marry”. The itinerent service existence is the antithesis of what Neeva would want from life; the result is that she consciously refuses to engage herself or her family in whatever community they happened to be living in for a couple of years before moving on to the next base.

This kind of growing up, I know, can leave you either cast out and adrift, or else it can encourage you to be malleable and dedicated to adjusting — the thing my mother disapproved of, since she didn’t do it, and held out for herself some notion of a different future, more like the one she’d imagined before she met our father. We — my sister and I — were small players in a drama she saw to be relentlessly unfolding.

As a result, what I began to care about was school, which was the continual thread in life besides my parents and my sister. I never wanted school to be over. I’d spend as much time inside school as I could, poring over books we were given, being around the teachers, breathing in the school odors, which were the same everywhere and like no other. Knowing things became important to me, no matter what they were.

That last paragraph is a pretty fair summary of Dell’s character: regardless of what may be happening around him, he is a passive adaptor, avoiding trouble and searching the circumstances around him for a safe haven where he can retreat, bury himself and “know” things. When you are the adolescent child of bank robbers, that seemingly ordinary goal can be a bit of a challenge — finding the path of least resistance is anything but a simple chore.

Bev and Neeva didn’t set out to be bank robbers, rather they fell into it. As the supply officer at the Great Falls base, Bev had been part of a scam that involved stocking the officers’ club with rustled beef supplied by nearby Indians (and, of course, skimming off some of the profits). When he mustered out of the Air Force and failed at a number of jobs, he went into “business” with a similar enterprise as the middleman selling the stolen beef to a dining car steward from the Great Northern Railway. When that project went astray and left a substantial debt owing to criminal elements, Bev reverted to his own natural character: if his son’s response to crisis is to look for a safe haven, Bev’s is to pursue the most dramatic option, in this case travelling over the state line to North Dakota to rob a bank.

That story takes up the first half of the book and you’ll note I have yet to mention Canada. Once the robbery has taken place, Neeva is sure the pair will be caught (and they are within a few days). She makes arrangements for a friend to take her children to Canada — Berner runs away instead, so only Dell makes the trip.

The second half of the book takes place in the Cypress Hills area of southwestern Saskatchewan, where Dell finds it even harder to find his idea of a comfortable refuge — don’t forget those murders the author has promised in his opening paragraph. He is unfamiliar with both the territory and the people in it, so “adapting” is pretty much a full-time occupation.

Richard Ford is an author of considerable reputation, best known for his trilogy featuring Frank Bascombe — The Sportswriter, Independence Day (which earned him the Pulitzer Prize) and The Lay of the Land. While I have read all three, I did so with some frustration — Ford’s interest is in what is happening inside his main character’s head, not in what is happening in the world around him.

Canada shares that trait and, for me, was even more frustrating. Dell is a semi-complete, if maturing, teenager — given that the entire novel comes from his point of view, he simply isn’t interesting enough to sustain a book that extends to 418 pages. The world around him — be it Great Falls or Saskatchewan — has much of interest in it, but the narrator simply doesn’t have the experience to bring it to life.

Regular visitors here will be aware that I’ve read and reviewed a fair bit of fiction set in that territory:

— Larry Watson’s Montana, 1948 and White Crosses are both set in Montana in roughly the same era as Canada — both also feature young protaganists dealing with the discomfort of their surroundings.
— Guy Vanderhaeghe (who is included in Ford’s Acknowledgements) set his own Western trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy, The Last Crossing and A Good Man) in exactly the same territory, albeit close to a century earlier. Alas, I read the first two before I started blogging, but there is a review of A Good Man here.
— Dianne Warren’s debut novel, Cool Water, is also set in Cypress Hills country, a few decades after Ford’s novel but not much has changed in the interval.

Given Ford’s substantial reputation, I know it is verging on heresy to say this, but I’d take any of those six over this book — and there is considerable overlap in the seven books cited. While Frank Bascombe’s existential response to his surroundings eventually kept me interested in all three of those novels, Dell Parsons was just too incomplete a character to carry this book — I kept wishing for more of the insight into the surrounding community and terrain that Watson, Vanderhaeghe and Warren all delivered.

27 Responses to “Canada, by Richard Ford”

  1. Deirdre O'Brien Says:

    Kevin, I have to agree with you about Ford. I’ve tried several of his earlier books and been disappointed. Thank you for putting your finger on the problem.

    Are you planning to review “Beyond the Islands” by Alicia Yanez Cossio translated by Amalia Gladhart? I know little Spanish but it seems to me this is a marvelous translation. I’d be interested in your understanding of the story. It opened a previously unknown world for me.

    Thanks so much for your interesting reviews. I really enjoy them and you have introduced me to some great books I might have missed. Dee


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Deirdre: I’d also observe that this is a very “masculine” book in the sense that I didn’t find either Dell’s mother or sister to be very complete characters. Part of that, of course, comes from using a male first person narrator — but I also found in the trilogy that the portrayal of women tended to suffer.

    I have not heard of Beyond the Islands so at this stage have no plans to review it. I’ll check it out

    And many thanks for the compliment — it is much appreciated.


  3. kimbofo Says:

    I received a copy of this in the post last week and was immediately intrigued by it. Although I no longer have an interest in American fiction, I figured the Canadian slant might make it worth a read. Your review suggests I should maybe not hurry into it…

    PS> I prefer the cover of the British edition.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: I’d say read 30 pages and see what you think — my guess is that will give you a fair indication of whether or not you will like the book. For me, at that point I still wanted to but questions were already popping up. Dell, his parents and his sister all should have been of more interest to me at that point then they were.

    I can’t find a large enough image of the UK edition to figure out what the detail of the cover is. I’m not keen on the Canadian version (I seem to have bias against green covers for some reason). I also don’t think the image is very appropriate since the walking character looks to be a mature male — and the setting in both halfs of the book is rural towns, not empty fields.


  5. Guy Savage Says:

    I’m in the same boat as Kim–yet to read this. I don’t know about ‘heresy’ I have two good reading acquaintances who refuse to read Ford.


  6. Mary Gilbert Says:

    A compelling review Kevin and I’ll be interested to see if I agree with you but I don’t think I will as Richard Ford is one of my favourites. I loved the Frank Bascombe trilogy – in particular Independence day – and though I’m a reader who enjoys a novel with rich exterior descriptions I didn’t find the interior monologue a problem. In fact I thought the insight into Frank’s interior world was what made the novels so sympathetic and unusual. When I think about Independence Day it’s the funny descriptions of the terrible inn he stays at with his son and the meetings he has with deluded punters in his real estate business that I recall. I absolutely disgree that Ford is only interested in Frank’s inner musings rather than the world around him.I don’t think I’ve read many other American novels that offer such a vivid impression of what it’s like to live in the East Coast of the USA in the present time than The Lay of the Land . I take your point about the adolescent narrator and the inability to `carry’ the narrative – having taught teenage boys for many years I can imagine their interior musings might become a little wearisome but this is a novel I’m very eager to buy and read.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I don’t think we are that far apart in our response to Frank. I confess to a general bias against first person narrators — I agree that it was the quality of Frank’s responses to the world around him that eventually carried the trilogy for me. (Although I would still prefer Updike’s Rabbit novels, which I suspect is a reflection for my narrator preferences). All of which suggests to me that you may find more to value in Canada than I did — it probably did not help my reaction that I have so many other favorite novels located in the same territory.


  8. anokatony Says:

    Not a big fan of Richard Ford either, not sure why he is so highly acclaimed.
    Still wondering about Kimbofo’s comment, ‘Although I no longer have an interest in American fiction,…’. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


    • kimbofo Says:

      ‘Tis true, Tony — but please don’t take offence. Once-upon-a-time American fiction was all I ever read — I did this for 20+ years! But thanks to this blogging malarkey I’ve discovered there is a whole other world of fiction out there to be read — from Scandinavia, Europe, Ireland, China, Japan, Canada etc — and for the past 5 years I’ve spread the love around and tried to read more widely. There are still enormous gaps to address — mainly South America and Africa — but I plan on getting around to those two continents soonish.


      • anokatony Says:

        Didn’t mean to jump on your comment, Kim. It makes sense if you read American fiction exclusively all those years. I do think that fiction is treated with less esteem in the US than in other English-speaking countries. Still a few good US novels manage to get published such as ‘Swamplandia’ and ‘Rules of Civility’ and ‘Matterhorn’ last year and ‘Perla’ this year.
        I agree that there are good writers all over the world. .


  9. gettingandspending Says:

    I hope you’ll forgive a little quibble, but Warren’s Cool Water is not set in the Cypress Hills; they’re not far away, but the country is very different.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Guilty as charged :-). I’ll admit as an Albertan, I tend to describe the entire southwestern corner of Saskatchewan as Cypress Hills country. You are quite right that the near desert of Cool Water is very different from the Cypress Hills themselves. My apologies.


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony, Kim: There is so much fiction published in the U.S. every year that even if you read a lot of it, it feels like you have hardly broken the surface. I for one am grateful to the blogging world for helping me to sort out the pile. Yes, there are authors (like Ford) who I will read simply because I know their previous work. Other books (such as as Maile Meloy’s or The Rules of Civilty — which is working its way up my pile) get into the house only because of reviews from bloggers whom I value.

    I guess I am not as out of step on Ford as I thought I was. Perhaps he is one of those authors (Franzen comes to mind) who attracts a lot of attention from conventional sources but leaves many readers less impressed.


  11. leroyhunter Says:

    Interesting thoughts Kevin. I’m still much more attracted by this then by Franzen, and the book has as you say attracted some glowing print reviews (from John Banville in particular).

    I’ll hold off for now though, as I still have The Lay of the Land to read – it was a gift a while back but is one of those trade paperback editions that I loathe, which has delayed me getting to it.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for mentioning the Banville review — here’s a link for those who have not seen it.

    Banville and I obviously read the same book (both our reviews actually use a couple of the same quotes), saw the same style and themes and reached quite different conclusions. I would say that is proof positive that readers are going to react to the novel in different ways.

    I do wonder how much of my reaction was influenced by the other novels that I have read (and liked) set in that part of the world, just down the highway from where I live. Quite a lot, I suspect — as I was reading I did frequently find my self making mental comparisons.


  13. Lee Monks Says:

    The first thing I’d’ve mentioned would’ve been the Banville review (which was, to me, almost mawkish in its reverent and lavish giddyness, but also kind of touching in a way) but Leroy got there first. And I’d tend to concur (not for the first time) with Mary’s assessment: I do like the Bascombe novels. But I appreciate your contextualising the book and for making some intriguing Ford points. It all makes a potential read that more interesting.


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I think the comments illustrate that Ford has a distinctive “lens” that he uses in his fiction — one which works very well for some readers and not so well for others. Given my rather limited exposure to Banville’s fiction, I wasn’t surprised at his enthusiasm for this book since he too likes to focus on a specific character, located in a challenging world.


  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well argued Kevin. I must admit that this – “he simply isn’t interesting enough to sustain a book that extends to 418 page” put me completely off the book. I’m vastly more tempted by Larry Watson, or a return to Vanderhaeghe (which is overdue anyway).

    Reputations have a momentum. Once one is acquired it rolls on a good few years and it can be hard to set oneself against it, or even if not against it to question it. Sadly that’s true for bad reputations too, which are also often undeserved but which can take on a life of their own independent of the actual work.


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think a number of the comments provide some balance to my opinion — if they don’t persuade you, I suspect you can give this one a miss. And I have already said I find Watson and Vanderhaeghe more to my taste in novels set in this part of North America. If you haven’t read any Ford, I’d certainly point to the Bascombe trilogy ahead of this one.

    Good point about reputations. John Irving was good enough for a series of books that I bought and struggled through three or four before abandoning him two books back (including his most recent release). I’d also agree that sometimes it takes a few books for an author to find his or her momentum — alas, in the new publishing work I suspect that a cool reception to a debut book makes it unlikely that any more will be published.


  17. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A troubling final thought Kevin. Many writers, many great writers, take a few novels to find their feet. Sometimes a distinctive voice takes a while to emerge from the influences that inspired it.


  18. coetsimer Says:

    I am late weighing in on Ford’s ‘Canada’ but found the novel genuinely compelling. What has not been mentioned above is that Ford has returned to territory of his earlier (and shorter)novel ‘Wildfire’ which initially stirred my interest in this writer. ‘Wildfire’ is also told from the point of view of a teenage boy who, in ‘Wildfire”s case, witnesses his mother’s adultery while his father is off in the Montana mountains fighting forest fires. The bank robbery by Dell’s parents in ‘Canada’ is an even more distrurbing event, but the incidents in both books release a well-justified psychological (or existential, if you wish) insecurity that creates a sustaining tension throughout. I have generally found that Ford is especially adept at re-creating the anxiety of characters who find themselves in some unholy jam of their own or others’ making. Ford’s technique of slowing releasing the facts of his tales on this always taut narrative foundation carries ‘Canada’ through the late summer in Great Falls, the autumn in southwestern Saskatchewan and to an elegiac (but never sentimental) denouement in Windsor, Ontario. To me, the sole flaw in Ford’s book is the too-rapid disclosure of the “intriguing” background of Dell’s Saskatchewan guardian, which should have been released in hints and fragmentary evidence over several chapters rather than in a too-definitive narrative by the Métis Quarters. I’m surprised in all the reviews of Ford’s book I’ve seen to date that there hasn’t been any probing discussion of the portrayal of the two principal aboriginal characters. Without trying to put the cat among the pigeons, I would credit Ford for having bravely created two realisitic portraits of marginalized survivors of neglected communities. They would not appear that way if film producers hand-cuffed by prevailing political correctness ever get their hands on this work — and frankly I do see good film possibilities here since more perhaps that any previous Ford work, ‘Canada’ contains a dramatic plot carried by significant actions — robbery, murder — and not only by the ebb and flow of personal interactions and injustices. Towards the end of ‘Canada,’ Dell offers some rather obvious signposts to the inspirational antecedents to this work — ‘Heart of Darkness’, Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, ‘The Great Gatsby.’ I found these late references actually add savour to what I had just read, and the book does create an atmosphere conducive to meditation. I certainly didn’t want to move on to the next book on my to-read pile — at least not the same day.

    Since Dianne Warren’s ‘Cool Water’ has been mentioned, I note that this summer, on KFC’s blog recommendation, I read this work and enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps I will return to it in another blog comment in time. I would not suggest ‘Cool Water’ as a substitute exploration of the (apparently increasingly) fascinating literary landscape of southwestern Saskatchewan. Both ‘Canada’ and ‘Cool Water’ are worth reading in their own right.


  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    coestsimer: Many thanks for the extensive and thoughtful comment. I think it shows that those who have engaged more deeply with Ford in his previous works than I did are likely to find much more in Canada than I did as well.

    As an aside, I should note that both Ford and Warren will be appearing in my hometown in Calgary in the next few weeks as part of WordFest programming — alas, not together so no chance to explore the similarities/differences at the same event. Ford is a special event Sept. 24, Warren part of the general festival which starts Oct. 9. They will someplete the southwestern Saskatchewan trifecta for WordFest — Guy Vanderhaeghe was part of it last year.


    • coetsimer Says:

      Thanks for the information, Kevin. I live a little too far from Calgary to make the WordFest events. I did meet Ford once many years ago in Ottawa at a public reading just after publication of ‘Independence Day.’ His reading style did complement the ruminative rhythm of his text. He was also happy to talk about southern Alberta and Montana when I spoke to him afterward about my admiration for his novel ‘Wildfire.’ Ford is, as can be imagined from his work, a gentleman, and on all of the above grounds I’d recommend attendance at the WordFest event. I’d be interested in meeting Warren too. But alas! on another occasion, back on Canadian soil.


  20. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I am a great admirer of Richard Ford, but based on the Bascombe novels. Ford’s writing has the power sometimes to stop me in my tracks and make me want to copy whole paragraphs into my journal. However, Canada is very different to the Bascombe novels and was probably in need of a good editor. Your review is excellent as always and makes me want to revisit the book.


  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome back, Tom. Ford does have the same descriptive powers in this book that are present in the Bascombe novels — my problem was that I was comparing him to some other authors whom I very much admire and whom I think captured the same landscape more effectively. And I don’t think his central character is quite up to Bascombe.


  22. Ol Brucie Says:

    i’m 60 pages in and, wondering if I should continue, came to this page. I’m still wondering. I am a big Ford fan but both Lay of the Land and Canada are so slow of pace that I am losing my admiration. His short stories are still wonderful to read but perhaps because they are just that, short.

    But what strikes me most about Canada is that the writing seems dull compared to his other work. Even in Lay of the Land there were several breathtakingly skillful sentences. Canada seems sort of ordinary.


  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Brucie: Since you like Ford, I’d say give it another 60 pages. It is slow but there are a number of short story-like set pieces along the way. Ford does proceed from incident to incident in the book so if you could mentally adjust yourself to looking at it as “stories in sequence”, that might help. Then again, I did not like the novel that much so maybe abandoning it might be the best advice. 🙂


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