In the late summer of 1960, America was still hanging on to its innocence. For 15-year-old Dell Parsons, however, all such illusions would be shattered before winter set in.
Because Dell and his twin sister, Berner, never thought of any town as home, the result of a nomad existence guided by their father's military career, their only constants were each other and their parents. They had learned to keep to themselves, to not make connections, and to be ready to pack up and go when required. But after four years in Great Falls, Montana, the twins started to let down their guard and began to blend in; Berner had a boyfriend, and Dell was hoping to join the chess club.
Unfortunately, their father, Captain Bev Parsons—encouraged to leave the Air Force—couldn't make a go of it in civilian life, quickly getting himself into trouble. Despite the fact that Dell's "parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank," (p. 1) that's exactly what they did. Although their mother made sketchy provisions for her children, when she and Bev were hauled off to prison just days after the robbery, the twins were left on their own.
Berner, already rebellious, simply walked out of the house, never looking back. Dell, not willing to ignore his mother's last instructions, waited until a neighbor picked him up to drive him north to his destiny.
In Richard Ford's Canada, Dell Parson tells us "about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed." (p. 1). From the opening pages we know Dell's defining moments, and we know he's remembering from the perspective of an adult. What we don't know are the particulars and the role Dell may have played in these events.
The fog of a life into which Dell is driven whirls around him. In Canada, he is passed along to a pair of men with murky pasts and unreadable intentions. He's given a shack to live in, food to eat, and job to do. The boy is accepting of his situation, working without complaint. Although he's utterly alone, Dell recalls and heeds the bits of good advice he's received and tries to create a pocket of normality. After the murders, however, the boy is left wondering about what happens to people who do only what they want to and who have no limits but their own.
One may think of Berner as being the brave one, not so much running away as running to. But it's Dell, who, despite everything, has the courage to find a last sliver of trust and thereby find a future.
When I think of those times—beginning with anticipating school in Great Falls, to our parents' robbery, to my sister's departure, to crossing into Canada, and the Americans' death, stretching on to Winnipeg and to where I am today—it's all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to restore and maintain my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I've crossed. I know it's only me who makes these connections. But not to try to make them is to commit yourself to the waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair. (p. 386)I don't know how to describe Canada, expect to say it's a novel that envelops you. Richard Ford's writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's, and I can see the similarities, especially in the Border Trilogy. But I often find such comparisons to be misleading, to plant the seeds of expectations that are waiting to be crushed. Canada is best read on it's own terms. Dell and the people who inhabit his young world are like no other characters you've met. Canada is one of the best books I've read this year . . . hell, perhaps this decade.
My review of the unabridged audio edition (Harper Audio, 15 hr, 32 min), read by Holter Graham, will be published by AudioFile magazine.
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