Will Byrnes's Reviews > Canada

Canada by Richard Ford
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Jun 27, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-of-the-year-2012
Read from December 22 to 28, 2011

** spoiler alert ** UPDATED 6/26/12 - see link at bottom

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford’s latest novel begins:
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later
Really, could anyone read those lines and not want to see what follows?

Ford gently but steadily builds tension from the opening sentence, when we know murders are coming, to the event itself. In the meantime we come to care about our narrator, Dell Parsons, and have a rooting interest in how he will fare once it does.

Part One of the novel takes us through events up to and including the robbery, after which Dell and his twin sister, Berner, are all but abandoned in their home in Great Falls, Montana. Surely a town name with some resonance. Berner takes off, leaving Dell to await rescue by a friend of their mother’s. In Part Two, this woman offers Dell her gentle strength en route to a remote Saskatchewan backwater where she delivers him to her brother, Arthur, a charismatic person with a history of violence, the biggest fish in a small, local pond, a king, in a way. Part Two is the meat of the book, the part that Ford began writing twenty years ago. Part One was written more recently, a mechanism for getting Dell across the border.

How much of who we are, who we become, is determined by where we find ourselves? Is it the physical events of life that are the most significant? Is it how we feel, what we remember? There is much here about crossing of lines, whether geographic boundaries or behavioral limits. Once certain boundaries have been crossed, can one ever go home again? Can one ever grow down? What can any of us do if we misunderstand the world? Dell struggles to understand as much as he can, knowing that his father’s misunderstanding of the world he found on his return from World War II contributed to his demise. A peripatetic life certainly did not help. Does such motion seek or escape?

Canada is a coming of age tale. Dell is an introspective, analytical fifteen-year-old, with a penchant for chess and an interest in bee-keeping. He walks us through his thoughts as he tries not only to adapt to life, which seems bent on buffeting him from place to place, but specifically, as he tries to figure out this latest home in which he finds himself. On a broader landscape, he tries to make sense of the world as a whole, attempting to suss out the rules for living his parents never got around to teaching him, learning to discern moral differences and make decisions based on that understanding. One specific image stood out for me, Dell discovering the rusting remnants of a defunct carnival. What an outstanding way to represent the end of innocence!

In addition to immersing us in the events of his fifteen-year-old life, Dell speaks to us from the vantage point of a mature adult. So we know, at the very least, that he survives. But we do not know in what shape or situation. Knowing this alters our concern level. If we know that Dell will survive his ordeal, there is that much less to be concerned about on his behalf. It removes us a bit from the action and lets us ponder Dell’s world the way he does. But Ford does not let us float too far above the events and lose our affection for a kid just trying to figure things out. He is a decent sort and we want him to be ok.

My exposure to Richard Ford is slim, having only read The Sportswriter previously. But it seems that Ford is working in familiar, comfortable themes. Examining one’s life, coping with expectations, reasonable and not, figuring out how to live in the world, all told in beautiful language. The physical world plays a larger role in this book, a landscape Ford mines for bleak, if dramatic resonance. There are stark, wide open spaces that mirror the open, still-forming character of young Dell and also serve to reinforce the harshness, the remoteness of his dark protector. Local wildlife is usually shown either as potential targets for hunters or in other battles for survival.
…we saw a big coyote in the road with a rabbit in its mouth. It paused and looked at our car approaching, then walked into the tall wheat out of sight. We saw what our father said was a golden eagle, poised in the perfectly blue sky, being thwarted by crows wanting to drive it away. We saw three magpies pecking a snake as it hurried to get across the pavement
People are gonna die.

The beautiful, spare writing reminded me of Kent Haruf (Plainsong and Eventide) and David Malouf (An Imaginary Life, The Conversations at Curlow Creek). There is a softness to the text. Many years ago, while driving north on the Henry Hudson Parkway in the Bronx, I saw a vision that has haunted my dreams ever since, a car heading southbound on the other side of the divider, with traffic, but gliding by on its roof. There was no sound associated with this, no crashing, screeching, horn-blowing. Ford’s writing reminds me of this. Serious things are going on, but without the noise. The even tone makes the darkness, the challenge, somehow more effective.

Always on the lookout for signposts (maybe too much) I found some items that led me nowhere, but they were probably not really signs anyway. Arthur Remlinger’s assistant, Charlie Quarters, clearly has homosexual tendencies, but nothing much is made of this other than the discomfort it entails for Dell. Naming seemed like it might offer some insight. Dell’s family name is Parsons. One of the cops who arrest his parents is named Bishop. And the Lutheran church across the street from their house crosses the stage for a scene or two, but that thread peters out. One might take the name of the town in which Dell finds himself, Partreau, which means plateau, and see in this a high place from which Dell gets to observe and learn from those around him, perhaps a reinforcement of Dell’s intellectual approach, above, in a way. It might just be a counterpoint to a character whose name means valley. Or it could just be a place name toting no symbolic value. Don’t know. Ford’s selection of Saskatchewan was not specific. When he was asked why he chose to send Dell there, he said, "he had to go somewhere." Ford had never been to Saskatchewan when he set his story there.

None of that matters. Canada is an outstanding work of literature, a beautiful, stark book, and an absolute must read.

I can’t help but imagine Terence Malik going to town on this one. Please, oh please.

Also, I came across a lovely interview with Ford from early 2011, before he had finished writing the book. A significant portion of the 54 minute audio recording addresses Canada.


6/26/2012 - Stephen Colbert did a wonderful short interview with Ford. In which we learn, among other things, why he keep his manuscripts in the freezer.

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Comments (showing 1-22)

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switterbug (Betsey) Will, where did you find this copy? I have been waiting patiently for two years1 This book was supposed to come out in 2009, and then it seemed to evaporate.

I can't read your review until after I read the book--the spoiler alert and all. But, boy, I'd love to get a copy of the book.

I am sure that your review is excellent. :--)

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I have a source at the company

Teresa Lukey This sounds really good. Now I have ants in my pants....:)

message 18: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I would have that taken care of

switterbug (Betsey) Super. Never even noticed the Bishop references. I love your very intrepid review.

message 16: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Ditto, bug. A great job.

Ultimately, it was not clear to me that the Bishop/Parson references actually amounted to much. But I kept expecting that they would, or that I had missed something.

message 15: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hi Will -- I had no idea that Part I was a sort of prequel to Part II; neither, in my mind, could exist without the other. I'm a big fan of Kent Haruf, but didn't really see the similarities in style. Other than that, I thought your review is astoundingly spot-on (and not just because you agree with my own interpretation:) I so agree that this is one of the best of 2012.

P.S. The Parsons-Bishop thing you comment on? Maybe it helps to know that Ford believes that art, not religion, will heal us...something that both of us can sign on to! :)

message 14: by Jill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jill Hi Will -- I had no idea that Part I was a sort of prequel to Part II; neither, in my mind, could exist without the other. I'm a big fan of Kent Haruf, but didn't really see the similarities in style. Other than that, I thought your review is astoundingly spot-on (and not just because you agree with my own interpretation:) I so agree that this is one of the best of 2012.

P.S. The Parsons-Bishop thing you comment on? Maybe it helps to know that Ford believes that art, not religion, will heal us...something that both of us can sign on to! :)

message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks. jill. Maybe my Haruf reaction was to what comes across to me as a serenity of style. It felt to me that the tone maintains a very even keel despite the presence of underlying tension. I do not think I can well defend real, specific comparison of sentence structure, but some part of my unconscious summoned Haruf to mind while reading this.

message 12: by Steve (last edited Jun 11, 2012 03:27PM) (new)

Steve You've got me interested in yet another one, Will. Sounds like Ford is every bit as effective with coming-of-age as he is with midlife-crisis (as the Frank Bascombe trilogy exemplifies).

I'm going to make a keyboard shortcut for "Great review, Will!"

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Steve. This is a pretty good book, definitely worth your time.

message 10: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary I wish I had two things...unlimited cash to buy all these books,and unlimited time to read them! Working cuts into my social life,and my reading time...dammit. I have read other of Ford's books,and really liked them. This one looks like another humdinger too.......

Jeffrey Keeten I "liked" your review even though I didn't read it because I know you wrote a great review. I have this queued up to read soon and will read your review after I finish and before I write mine. I may not even have to write a review after reading yours. Since I have everything the man has written signed I popped for a signed copy of this one from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. FULL RETAIL so man am I already pot committed to this book.

message 8: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary I have this one on my Nook! I am gonna get to it.

Will Byrnes The book IS wonderful, although I am not certain it deserves quite the universally glowing reviews it has gotten. But the Colbert interview is well worth the cost of 7 minutes of your life.

message 6: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary Colbert interviewed Ford? Is it on youtube? Link??

Jeffrey Keeten Gary wrote: "Colbert interviewed Ford? Is it on youtube? Link??"

There is a link at the bottom of the review. I just watched. Wonderful!

Les Wonderful review, Will. This was a slow burn for me, but I kept coming back. I'm still pondering everything but I am impressed at his ability to give away so much and so often throughout the novel and still have the reader dying to learn more.

Will Byrnes Thanks, Les. And yes, he does, although going ahead also reduces the tension of danger as well.

Victor Carson Will, I just finished the book this afternoon and will probably post a review tomorrow. I like your review very much. The Coming of Age structure of the book struck me as well. Dell's remaining in Canada reminds me of John Irving's decision to live in Canada.

Will Byrnes I will be interested to see your take

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