The Richardson Review
Story Tom & Emma Richardson
Canada, the tenth book by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Mississippi native Richard Ford, is narrated in the first person by Dell Parsons, who begins by recounting the defining event of his family’s life — the bank robbery his parents committed — and then tells about the murders that happened later. In 1960, when Dell and his twin sister, Berner, were 15, their parents (“the least likely people in the world to rob a bank”) drove across the state line beyond their home in Great Falls, Mont., to Creekmore, N.D., and robbed the Agricultural Bank, an act that set the children’s lives on a trajectory of disruption, abandonment and loss.
Much of Part One of the novel is Dell’s attempt to reconcile the loss by assessing both the positive and negative aspects of his parents’ lives in an effort to account for their unaccountable actions. He describes his father, Bev, an Alabama native and recently retired (demoted) captain in the U.S. Air Force, as “tall, handsome, outgoing” and “funny, forever wanting to please anybody who came in range.”
Dell recounts his father’s actions as a bombardier during World War II and speculates that when he “returned from the theatre of war and from being the agent of whistling death out of the skies … he may have been in the grip of some great, unspecified gravity, as many GIs were.” Their mother, Neeva (“Geneva”), from Washington state and the daughter of Polish immigrants, was “tiny, intense, bespectacled,” who “read French poetry” and “wrote poems in brown ink.” She had graduated from Whitman College at 18 and “had hoped someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from who she did marry.”
Dell comes to realize his parents from the beginning were mismatched and their lives together misguided “like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense.”
As a backdrop to the increasing friction between their parents, Dell and Berner have almost non-existent links to traditional means of connection: extended family, classmates and friends, neighbors or religious life (their mother is a non-observant Jew, and Dell mentions that at age 15 he had never been inside a church). They had lived on Air Force bases in Mississippi, California and Texas, and never thought of themselves as “being from anywhere in particular.” Dell finally acknowledges that “our parents … didn’t offer my sister and me enough to hold on to, which is what parents are supposed to do.” The one constant — and solace — for Dell is school, the “continual thread” of his life.
In Part Two Dell recounts the days immediately after his parents are arrested and jailed, when Berner runs away and he is spirited to Saskatchewan to work for eccentric — and menacing — men in a Fort Royal hotel. Dell holds onto the advice given by the woman his mother entrusted to get him away from the Montana juvenile authorities; she tells him about his parents, “Just ’cause their life got ruined, doesn’t mean yours does.”
The novel’s third part comes to the present time when Dell is 66 and about to retire from a long career of teaching high school English to students in Windsor, Ontario. Teaching, Dell declares, is “a gesture of serial non-abandonment [of his students], the vocation of a boy who loved school.” (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012; $27.99)
EMMA: What a powerful novel is Canada! Surely Richard Ford will receive a second Pulitzer Prize for it. The story resonates with timely topics and themes. On the one hand, it deals with the importance of family and place and vocation. It underscores for me how the lives of so many young people are full of the disruptions and dislocations of Dell’s and Berner’s lives and reminds me how fragile their security must be.
As a teacher, I’m touched by the centrality Dell gives to school, to that continuous thread in his life; I almost weep when he declares that “I never wanted school to be over.” The novel also reminds me how people sometimes can make sense of their lives if they are able to order words into a narrative, creating order out of chaos. Dell is able to achieve that; he has learned from John Ruskin that in life, as in art, one must know how “to subordinate … to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find.”
Finally, Dell finds love and work that fill his spirit; about his wife, he simply says, “I married the right girl.” About his students he declares, “I always feel I have a lot to teach them and not much time.”
TOM: I don’t know if Canada will win the Pulitzer Prize, but if there is a better novel published this year I’ll look forward to reading it. The novel is brilliantly ordered, and Dell’s lyrical, captivating narrative voice immediately connects readers with the characters and sustains us through a plot that might seem a bit contrived if plot really mattered.
The opening sentences announce an intriguing climax to the story’s compelling action so that the reader doesn’t have to anticipate what will happen but rather can, with Dell, reflect on and puzzle over character and consequence. In Part Three Dell comments on how we can see ourselves in literature but also on how important it is to be able to “take on another’s life” for one’s own benefit. He names major works of fiction, but it is clear that his mother’s prison “chronicle” was just as important; his mother understood the significance of literature for life.
Two “great” works kept running though my head as I read Canada: William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, last year’s winner of the Man-Booker Prize. Ford’s novel surpasses both. Dell concludes that “you have a better chance in life — of surviving it — if you tolerate loss well.” In Canada, Richard Ford demonstrates the value of good literature — of sharing narratives — for aiding our chances of survival.