• By Richard Ford
  • Ecco
  • 418 pp.
  • Reviewed by William Miller
  • June 5, 2012

A boy must survive his parents’ incarceration, his mother’s suicide, and the loss of his runaway sister in this coming-of-age story.

In Richard Ford’s seventh novel, Canada, the title doesn’t come into play until well into the action and yet is the metaphor that wraps around the whole of the story of our narrator, 15-year-old Dell Parsons, and makes this a novel about big truths told by a writer with clear vision.

One would expect no less from Ford. His book publications, in both the short and long forms of fiction, go back to 1976’s A Piece of My Heart, followed by eight others over the next 30 years. This is the first since 2006, when he finished the Frank Bascombe trilogy with The Lay of the Land. The middle book in that series, Independence Day, in 1995, won Ford the Pulitzer Prize. The first in that series, of course, was The Sportswriter, which began to bring Ford a wider reading public beyond the halls of schools and colleges, where his earlier short stories were well regarded and frequently anthologized.

In the new novel, Dell’s father, Bev, is a former Army Air Corps soldier released from service and suddenly at loose ends, but particularly challenged in his efforts to earn a living that will support his wife, Neeva, and their two children, fraternal twins Dell and Berner. Through his own misapplication of energies, the father ends up in a bit of a jam, his solution for which is to rob a bank. As Dell points out, it all could have been prevented — the bank robbery, his parents’ incarceration, his mother’s suicide, his sister’s running away and the steering of Dell’s life through a plan hatched by his mother in the hours between the bank robbery and her arrest. But it wasn’t prevented. And so we have a story that evokes the dissolution of one American family, not for important reasons and yet for reasons that matter and have grave consequences — mistakes in judgment.

Bev Parsons has married up, at least in the eyes of his in-laws, and so he has no choices, he feels, when he gets into his jam other than to do what he does: invent a plan that is simultaneously both bold and simple. Or so he thinks. And so his loss of innocence sets up similar losses for his children.

After the mistake of Bev, and then the mistake of Neeva to aid in the robbery, she further complicates matters by planning to ship both children off to Canada, to the prairie of Saskatchewan, to be precise. Here, the novel stretches to embrace its largest themes —place but also lives and identities. Berner responds by running away to avoid what she sees as the trap of their mother’s plan. Dell, though, goes along, and so is placed into the custody of an enigmatic and dark figure, the ex-American Arthur Remlinger. It is here that the metaphor of the novel’s title works its way fully into our consciousness.

As Dell becomes the stranger in a strange land, we see how he and Berner have had to do the usual growing-up thing of discovering themselves as young adults apart from the identities they had with their parents and each other. But these two also must establish their identities, suddenly and under the harsh conditions of seeing their parents arrested, and then make it on their own with this as the starting point. So this becomes a tale of America, happening as it does in 1960 — Kennedy vs. Nixon, and before the period called the Sixties came and changed so much of everything, pointing out our innocence, making so much of it just go away.

A lesser writer than Ford probably would have written this novel in the third person and in the process produced a less artful book. Ford knows his way around the conventions of fiction. So one would expect him to know how to handle a first-person narrator and how to invent a voice for a young man that conveys his inner and external life as well as the conflicts he feels with the world and himself. One gets that high level of artifice from Ford’s work, here as elsewhere. It is solid, satisfying craftsmanship. This is a Richard Ford novel in the tradition of his earlier work. It also is a coming-of-age story, and a story about the discovery of identity, a major and consistent theme running through much of Ford’s work.

William Miller directs the graduate writing program and teaches at George Mason University. He is a former journalist. In his latest book project he assisted Jack Censer with the writing of On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media.

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