Canada by Richard Ford tells the story of the Parsons family, mother Neeva, father Bev and their twin fifteen year olds, sister Berner and brother Dell. The story is narrated by Dell the younger twin who recounts his American childhood in the late 1950’s from the perspective of his adult self in the present day. This approach to narration has the advantage of tempering the observations of childhood with the hard won insights of adult life.
The father Bev was a U.S air force pilot and with that occupation came a nomadic life for the Parsons family. The family have long moved from place to place never really settling until they reach the town Great Falls in Montana. When Bev is discharged from the air force for a misdemeanour it seems that the Parson family will settle down in this sleepy small town. Young Dell anticipates the trappings of settled life such as school, peers and extracurricular activities with enthusiasm and begins to plan a future, in so far as boys do, involving bee keeping. In fiction much as in life plans rarely work out as expected.
A bank robbery committed by the parents in a moment of desperation irrevocably alters the family members lives. We are made immediately aware of this impending incident in the novels opening sentences, “First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” As well as being a useful way of grabbing the reader’s attention Ford’s opening line puts us in the position of his young protagonist Dell. Dell inhabits the disempowered world of childhood where one is totally dependent on parents.
Dell constantly looks for clues or signs from his parents about the state of their relationship. As the adult Dell tells us, “Children know normal better than anyone”. He intuits that the state of his parents marriage is somehow bound up with his future. Due to his youth and the nature of parent child interactions his interpretations rely on fragmentary moments and overheard discussions from which he must draw his conclusions. Aware of the approaching robbery and murders mentioned in the opening sentence we the reader also scrutinise his parents looking for the cracks, seams and dysfunction which will eventually manifest in calamity.
The sense of uncertainty which hangs around his parents marriage seems to emanate from their very different personalities. Dells’ father, Bev, is an Alabama native whose air force career has landed him far from home. His Southern background sets him apart from those around him in Montana. Bev relishes his incidental individuality not knowing such conspicuousness will eventually contribute to his downfall. Bev is a man of a mildly left wing persuasion on matters such as race and government which stems from his time in the army. Such values not often associated with the USA’s south seem to mark him out as not quite belonging, even in his place of origin. He is a charming and good intentioned man but lacks any real substance. His desire to be liked by everyone around him is his Achilles heel. Of all of Ford’s characters in Canada, I found him the most interesting.
His wife Neeva is marked as an outsider by her attitude. She has an aloof nature due to her pretensions about herself as being culturally superior to her fellow inhabitants of Montana which stems from her metropolitan immigrant parents. Her views about Montana are best summed up in her sentence, “it’s just cows and wheat out here… there’s no real organised society”. Because of her sense of cultural superiority she keeps herself apart from the surrounding community, a policy which she tries to encourage in her children. Further to her attitude, her Jewish heritage physically marks her as different from those around her.
We learn that Neeva and Bev ended up married as the result of an unplanned pregnancy and this seems to have set the tone for their mismatched relationship. Neeva’s parents disapprove of Bev feeling she should have married someone more appropriate to their imagined social station such as a college professor; as such her contact with them dwindles. Without extended family or community both Bev and Neeva must depend on each other. Unfortunately their mismatched natures make disaster seemingly inevitable.
As often occurs in Ford novels the topic of fathers and how they inevitably disappoint their son’s crops up. In Canada we find two examples of this. The two father figures are Dells biological father Bev and his Canadian benefactor Arthur Reminger. Both men seem to suffer from a similar condition of insubstantiality that is revealed to be their fatal flaw. In Bev’s case this existential lack is relatively benign. Although Bev eventually ends up committing a robbery and in the process destroying his family, we can at least say he seemed a loving father.
We may also observe that his act of robbery seems more akin to a child’s game of cops and robbers than a work of vicious criminality. Arthur Reminger is a different story. The absence within him is darker and more sinister than Bev’s. Whilst reading about the dapper and louche Reminger I found myself thinking of him as a kind of “bad Gatsby”. Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby he tries to appear to others and himself as how he wishes he was rather than how he is, to compensate for the void he feels at his core. Both Bev and Reminger want the same thing from Dell. When the adult Dell explains about Reminger, “he needed me to do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they’re substantial, that they’re not hollow, not ringing absences. That they count for something when little else does” he could equally be talking about Bev.
Insubstantiality is certainly not a problem with Ford’s novel Canada. Structurally the novel is split into three untitled sections. The first features the build up to and committing of the bungled robbery. Part two shows Dells flight to Canada to evade social services and the life he leads there. The third section looks at the aftermath of these events and how they have affected the adult Dell and his sister. In each section we are introduced to an interesting array of characters and situations. I was worried that the pace of the story would slacken after the robbery was committed but thankfully these fears were unfounded as my interest was held to the end. Fords masterful use of language and perceptive insights provide an illuminating reading experience provided by a mature writer at the height of his powers. I have no hesitation in describing Canada as a potential classic of modern literature.