Richard Ford’s latest novel, "Canada," made me cry. I listened to the audiobook edition read by Holter Graham. It moved me to also read the hardcover edition. I am thinking about finding the time to reread it as I listen to it so I do not miss a word.
Canada is about the commerce between landscape and character. Characters in stories connect readers to the enormity of our private lives by describing fictional people with whom we can identify. Landscapes are the places in which fictional characters live. That we either know because we have lived in them ourselves, or can appreciate because they are beautifully described.
Canada takes the idea of landscape a step further by including in its definition not only the places, Great Falls, Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada, where its narrator, Dell Parsons, lived in the book, but his family, including his parents, Bev Parsons and Neeva Kamper, and twin sister, Berner Parsons. Family is at the heart of Canada. It is where Dell lives and who he is, the interdependent parts of his home. Canada is where he tries to reconcile is his responsibility for himself from his responsibility for his family. Something almost everyone tries to do every day.
Dell’s family is isolated. Bev was an Air Force captain who got demoted and retired after getting involved in something illegal. So his family moved from base to base. After retiring from the Air Force, Bev tries and fails to sell new and then used cars, and then real estate, before getting himself in more trouble and trying to resolve it by robbing a bank using his wife, Neeva, as an accomplice. She agrees to his solution, becoming his accomplice and getaway driver.
Neeva is Jewish with an intellectual bent. She married Bev after becoming pregnant with Dell and his twin sister, Berner. The family never settled down to establish stronger community relationships because they never stayed anyplace for a long enough period. Neeva is the family’s center of gravity. She never wanted Dell and Berner to buy into the Air Force culture hoping that they could rise above it. Neeva never wanted her children disturbed into ordinariness. She set a boundary for them between person and place. Crossing it, by getting more involved with any of the communities in which they lived would lead to a conflict, possibly compromising their individuality for the sake of belonging. They are outsiders whose personalities were more important to them than their communities. Canada’s title speaks to this conflict because the story begins in the United States, ending in another country that partly reconciles this conflict of how much to be an insider as opposed to an outsider. Something which most of us struggle with.
Plot becomes secondary to Canada’s landscapes and characters. Ford appears to be more interested in how Canada’s landscapes give its characters historical relevance, and their reactions to changes in their circumstances. His writing is focused less on seeing how things work out in Canada, but more on listening to what his characters say and watching what they do. Most people experience unexpected, life changing events. In Canada consequences trump actions. The good fortune of daily life is important but not as important as what happens in the aftermath of experiencing a tragedy. The good fortune of everyday life is tense for serving Dell’s discovery of his individual identity growing up and developing in the midst of his family. What follows the tragedy of his parents’ bank robbery is tense for providing ways he can live up to his destiny that contains the possibility for a personal revelation. Either way Canada is about Dell’s coming to terms with himself.
Canada’s narrator has two central voices. One is Dell’s at 15 years old, and the other is Dell at 65 years old. The two voices wrestle determining Dell’s past, to accept who he is and where he comes from, and attempt to separate his needs, wants, and desires from his parents’ and sister’s. The question the novel puts forth is whether Dell will live his life meeting his family’s expectations or discover his own. What will he accomplish and will it be acceptable? Dell’s mother always wanted to go to college and become some kind of intellectual, but she considered herself too weak. Her pregnancy and subsequent marriage interrupted her dreams. In jail, after being arrested for robbing a bank with her husband, Neeva writes a chronicle of what happened. Incarcerated she finally tries to do what she has always wanted by having an intellectual pursuit. After writing her chronicle, Neeva commits suicide in prison. What Neeva wanted for her children was to have what she wanted for herself, but could not. To live individual and reasonable lives unencumbered by any, “market-town mentality.” Bev is more about the sensation of living in the moment. After their parents bank robbery and arrest, Dell and Berner are separated from them. Neeva arranged for her children to go away, to live in Canada with a friend’s, Mildred Remlinger’s, brother, Arthur Remlinger, to avoid being institutionalized. Berner runs away before Mildred appears. Mildred drives Dell to Canada where Arthur lives and owns a small town hotel on the prairie where he is forced to do manual labor and live alone in a shed. Dell’s relationship with Arthur reads like a recapitulation of his relationship with Bev. Arthur craves excitement like Bev. He is also drawn to murder two Americans with Dell’s help when they come looking for him to make trouble. Eventually, Dell not only extricates himself from these dire circumstance, but he becomes an accomplished high school English teacher. He reconciles his past by figuring out how his parents lives bound his. Dell learns how his father’s cravings affected him, and decides that he wants nothing to do with them, after paying a debt to him by quietly witnessing two murders. He lives up to his mother’s expectation by becoming an intellectual. Having paid his debt to her he does more. After retiring from teaching he exultantly writes "Canada," attempting to transcend himself, by deciding to no longer to simply live up to his parents circumstances and expectation, but create new ones for himself. Essentially also paying a debt to himself. Happiness in Canada is about becoming constructive to yourself.
If you have read Eudora Welty’s, collection of essays, "On Writing," you know that fiction is meant to commonly teach us something about ourselves, but it is also meant to uncommonly irradiate us spiritually. Eudora Welty is one of Richard Ford’s heroes. The line that fiction crosses trying to teach and irradiate its readers is tenuous because its writers do not always achieve both. I think that Richard Ford did because he got to me by making me cry. Bev and Neeva’s passage from living an everyday life raising their children to robbing a bank and becoming criminals, and breaking their family apart takes time. They hardly know what it is happening to them as it occurs until it is too late. That is exactly how normal life turns tragic. When a tragedy happens it appears that it takes an instant, but afterwards we realize that a lot happened leading up to it that could have been prevented. In Ford, success and tragedy are places like Canada and the United States, Dell’s family before they rob a bank, and later. Existing side by side they are separated by a thin boundary. We can comfortably exist normally in our own countries, living with ourselves. Only after crossing a boundary can we flirt however unwittingly with tragedy by living in another country and discovering ourselves. Crossing these boundaries is a tricky business that can happen to anybody. Life before a tragedy is hardly revealing compared to what is revealed about people afterwards. How we react can wither make or break us as human beings.
This leads me to what made me cry when reading Canada. It was the descriptions of Dell’s relationship with Berner. Being twins they are even closer than siblings born at separate times. They caused their parents marriage that sealed their fate after it began to fail. Bev and Neeva’s bank robbery that separates their family is nothing compared to the loss that Dell and Berner experience when they lose each other. Berner runs away. They meet each other many years later when Berner’s life is stricken with cancer. They know, but hardly recognize each other. It is sad to read about Dell’s life in Canada. Living in isolation at Arthur’s mercy. Trying to work out his relationship with Bev using a substitute. However, the scenes written to describe Dell and Berner’s relationship before and after their parents’ bank robbery are captivatingly intimate. Dell and Berner remind me of their parents. Dell is more reasonable, taking after their mother, and Berner more feeling, taking after their father. Reading about their relationship, and suffering separately is heartbreaking. Dell and Berner like two separate countries, Canada and the United States, sharing the same landscape and character, but different.