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Canada by Richard Ford

picture of book cover

Who are the children of bank robbers? That provocative question is answered, with varying levels of satisfaction, in Richard Ford’s Canada.
Part One is engrossing, as Ford lays out the circumstances behind the misfortunate of the Parsons family. Bev Parsons, formerly of the Air Force, is a consummate dreamer and schemer, who married his wife only because she became pregnant. Neeva, while she loves the twins that follow (Dell and Berner), is stern, Jewish, and constantly thinking she’s capable of more. It all makes sense how the two parents, lost to each other in 15 years of marriage, find each other through their plans to rob a bank. Interspersed are the small heartbreaks reflective in distracted parents, from Dell being completely ignored as he begs his father to take him to the state fair to see the bee exhibit, to Berner’s attempt at trying to cook a steak after the parents are arrested.
It doesn’t give anything away to say that the Parsons are torn apart by the robbery, and that Dell is on his way to Saskatchewan in Part Two. It’s literally the Canada part of the story that both bewildered me and made me feel tired. The reader absolutely feels the desolation of rural Canada in 1960 and the utter misery and poverty Dell experiences.
Linda Holmes of NPR’s MonkeySee has talked about sometimes she becomes stressed by “serious” fiction because she’s worried she’s missing some larger point or symbolism. I rarely have that feeling, but once Dell gets to Canada, I started worrying I was missing metaphors. At one point Arthur runs over a group of pheasants and later I thought “ah, what is it supposed to mean?” Of course, the flip side of that is it could illustrate no larger point than Arthur being an unkind, self-involved person with a “chaos mind.” There’s a section where Dell, a teacher, tells his students “not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings—even in the books they read—but to look as much as possible straight at the things they can see in broad daylight. In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you’ll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world.”
Still, even with feeling a bit lost and ready for their to be more action and less reflection, Ford has a way of writing that makes you want to write notes in the margins for everything. At one point, Dell reflects, “However, as Arthur Remlinger said, I was the son of bank robbers and desperadoes, which was his way of reminding me that no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from—anything at all can follow anything at all.”
It’s also worth noting that Canada feels original – I can’t think of anything like it that I’ve read recently, although I suspect that those who liked Once Upon a River will also like this, as they share teenage protagonists trying to find their way.