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Review: Canada by Richard Ford



Highlights: A timeless, tragic story of the consequences of crime from a master of American realism.
Synopsis: Dell Parsons looks back on the eventful late summer of 1960, when he and his twin sister were 15 and their parents plotted the ill-fated robbery that changed all their lives forever.



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An evocative setting on the bleak, lawless frontiers of North America; gorgeous, down-to-earth prose; a strong narratorial voice; an unusual approach to timing and major plot revelations.


Heavy-handed foreshadowing of future tragedy; a second half that doesn’t quite live up to the first; a title that doesn’t hint at the book’s brilliance.

Posted May 13, 2013 by

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I recently encountered the useful literary term “dirty realism.” It was coined by Bill Buford, former editor of Granta magazine, to describe American literature of the 1980s, including authors like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and our man of the moment, Richard Ford. What Buford sought to emphasize was the authors’ gritty, unflinching commitment to life as it is, not as we would wish it to be (fantasy), not as we imagine it could be (magic realism), and not as we fear it someday might be (dystopia). As a literary tradition, you can see it extending through Cormac McCarthy to David Vann and Ron Rash.

Although Ford has long been revered for works like The Sportswriter (1986) and its two sequels, Independence Day (which won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1996) and The Lay of the Land (2006), I had not heard of him until last year, when he happened to be featured in a regular Guardian column on the writer’s life. I liked this stranger’s wry musings on the supposed incompatibility between art and hard work – playing with the idea that an author is someone who has never done an honest day’s work in his life. But a year later the reviews for Canada (2012) gripped me, and many other readers, I’m sure.

Richard Ford (Photo credit: Lesekreis)

Richard Ford (Photo credit: Lesekreis)

It’s a striking storyline, with a particularly engaging opening: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Thus we are introduced to our narrator, Dell Parsons, a sixty-something naturalized Canadian citizen on the verge of retiring from his job as an English teacher. From the present day, Dell looks back on the eventful late summer and fall of 1960, when he and his twin sister Berner were 15 and their parents cooked up the robbery that changed all their lives forever.

Dell is quick to stress that his parents were the last people you would ever expect to rob a bank: his father, Bev, was an amiable southerner who’d gotten involved with some dodgy dealings as a middleman for some stolen beef but was harmless, really; their mother, Neeva (short for Geneva) was the daughter of highbrow Jewish immigrants from Poland, and still retained the foreign features that made her seem suspicious to their Montana neighbors. And yet when the beef-dealing went bad and Bev was under pressure from his Indian associates, he decided the easiest way to get the money he needed was to drive over to North Dakota and rob a bank. He and Neeva both foolishly believed they would not be noticed, when in fact they stood out horribly in a small frontier town where everyone knew everyone.

The book’s pacing is one of the most remarkable things about it. Although readers know from the first sentences what is coming, the robbery itself does not take place until around page 100, and the murders not until 50 pages from the end. We are made to wait for the full revelation of these events, but there are constant hints that keep us hurtling towards the unfolding tragedies. For instance, Ford alerts readers in advance, through small pieces of foreshadowing, to the fact that Dell’s parents will get caught. When Dell says goodbye to them in the county jail before they are transported, he knows he’s seeing them for the last time. And yet there is still half the book to go. Part Two approaches – what in the world will Ford do with another half a book? the reader wonders.

A Saskatchewan sky (Photo credit: striatic)

A Saskatchewan sky (Photo credit: striatic)

The answer is: Dell flees to the titular Canada. Berner has run off to San Francisco, but Neeva’s friend Mildred Remlinger comes for Dell as she promised she would – before child authorities can grab him – and drives him over the border, where he’s met by Charley Quarters, a grotesque pseudo-villain worthy of Dickens. Charley takes him the rest of the way to Mildred’s brother, Arthur Remlinger, who runs the Leonard hotel in a small frontier town in Saskatchewan. Dell helps out around the hotel, mopping out rooms and setting up shoots for the goose hunters who flock in for the fall. He rarely sees his mysterious employer, but there is a definite air of menace about him. Once again readers sense an impending tragedy.

And so, scarcely two months after he’s left his parents in a Montana jail, Dell finds himself caught up in a crime once again. Arthur Remlinger has a dark past: as a young man in Michigan he had anarchist leanings and planted a bomb in union headquarters, which went off and killed the vice president. Like Dell, he came to Canada under a cloud of suspicion. And yet 15 years have passed without his guilt coming to light – until now, with two men headed up from Michigan to question him about the bombing. No surprises here: this is where we will get the murders Dell promised so long ago, in the very first paragraph.

An abandoned grain elevator in Saskatchewan. (Photo credit: Krystian Olszanski)

An abandoned grain elevator in Saskatchewan. (Photo credit: Krystian Olszanski)

Normally a book that is so rigidly divided into two sections can seem less like a novel than like linked novellas about the same characters, masquerading as a complete product. And yet the book works surprisingly well as a whole. A short concluding section reunites Dell and Berner (who has taken their father’s name, Bev) one last time before she dies of lymphoma. Dell’s experiences have made him a sensitive and probing teacher of literature. He encourages his students to think deeply about life, to hold contradictions in their minds and not make rash judgments about things they do not fully understand. He teaches many of the great tragedies, such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, that deal with moments of decision – moments such as must have preceded his parents’ robbery, when life is still normal and innocent and not yet destined for catastrophe:

“I have always counseled my students to think on the long life of Thomas Hardy. Born, 1840. Died, 1928. To think on all he saw, the changes his life comprehended over such a period. I try to encourage in them the development of a ‘life concept’; to enlist their imaginations; to think of their existence on the planet not as just a catalog of random events endlessly unspooling, but as a life—both abstract and finite. This, as a way of taking account.”

Indeed, like much of Hardy’s work (especially The Return of the Native, which has a similarly strong sense of place), Canada feels timeless: Part One could just as easily, with only a few adjustments, have taken place in the 1940s, the 1920s, or even the 1880s. It has the air of the Wild West – the lawless frontiers of North America. If I remain puzzled by anything, it is by the novel’s title. Although Canada is, for both Arthur and Dell, symbolic of escape and a refuge from the violence of life, as a title it is not quite evocative enough for this masterful work of ageless dirty realism.

Review: Canada by Richard Ford 5.00/5 (100.00%) 1 vote

Rebecca Foster

An American in London, library assistant by day, and lover of all things bookish. I'm also a literature programming team volunteer and guest blogger for Greenbelt arts festival, and a reviewer for We Love This Book's website. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are contemporary literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction (especially Victorian-set), graphic novels, foodie lit and nature writing.


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