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.