Canada

Richard Ford, Bloomsbury

One reason I love Richard Ford’s writing is that every word is intentional but nothing seems forced.

For example, take the name of his latest novel: Ford says it’s called Canada because that’s a place where the “pummelling” that comes from being American relents.

“America beats on you so hard the whole time” — and it’s a beating he believes emanates out of the nation’s emphasis on people’s rights and patriotism.

Crossing the border into Canada, he says, it’s a relief to throw the clamour off.

Here’s another example: Ford set the first part of the book in Great Falls, Missouri, partly because it’s a great name and partly because Great Falls is on the frontier of the Rocky Mountains. He says it’s such a dramatic place that any story set there would seem plausible.

Need more evidence of Ford’s intent? How’s this? “Canada was better than America, she said, and everyone knew that — except Americans. Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was mad about it.”

The plot of Canada is straightforward but quirky.

Bev and Neeva, the parents of twins Dell and Berner, decide to rob a bank. They stuff it up and go to prison. The twins are separated and Dell gets taken over the border in to Canada.

Life begins again for Dell and takes some interesting turns. We hear his voice as a teenager and then as an older man, a teacher, reflecting back on where his life has taken him.

Ford weaves complex themes throughout this simple and abiding story. One theme relates to crossing borders: how a single event can divide a person’s life into before and after; how being on the wanted list in one country can turn you into a renegade without rules in another; how crossing from one country to another can mean just about everything about you goes up for grabs.

Another theme centres on how important it is to find meaning in life.

Dell’s father, Bev Parsons, leaves the Air Force at age 37. From there he works as a car salesman, a real estate agent selling land and farms and also as a trader of stolen beef. Dell’s mother is equally lost. She is fine-boned with arty aspirations and her relationship with the rambunctious Bev is strained. It’s hard to say why she agrees to be partners in crime with Bev in robbing the bank — but she does.

The novel shows clearly how not finding one’s niche, and not feeling a sense of belonging, can lead to drastic action with even more dramatic consequences.

The novel’s greatest achievement, however, is the mood it creates and how it lingers in the mind like a taste you wish to relish again and again.

Dell’s articulate and melancholic voice does much to shape this mood.

Here’s a grab: “The world doesn’t usually think about bank robbers as having children — though plenty must. But the children’s story — which mine and my sister’s is — is ours to weigh and apportion and judge as we see fit … Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. Which means it’s for the composer to determine what’s equal to what, and what matters more and what can be set to the side of life’s hurtling passage onward.”

The gun-slinging renegade, Arthur Remlinger, casts a sinister shadow on Dell’s life and there are points at which it seems uncertain whether Dell will be dragged under by Arthur’s nefarious ways.

The passages set in Saskatchewan, where Dell lives in a shack on bread and scrape and works for a small wage in an establishment Remlinger owns, are some of the book’s finest.

I’m grateful to Ford because his writing always transports me. The sheer scope of his sentences helps me to cross borders.

If you’re looking for a book to spirit you away, Canada is a large and unique “country” containing multitudes. It’s a soulful place to travel and worth the trip.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones

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