New Maine Times Book Review: Canada

Posted Wednesday, May 22, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: Canada
By Richard Ford.
Ecco, 2012.
420 pages, $27.99.
ISBN 978-0-06-169204-8.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
Fifteen year old Dell Parsons opens this story with two of the most powerful, engaging sentences:  “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders which happened later.”  Author Richard Ford certainly knows how to grab a reader’s attention.
CANADA is Ford’s eighth novel, a heartbreaking tale of a family pretending to be normal, but doomed by bad decisions, with a young teenage boy set adrift in an adult world he does not understand and cannot control.  Ford lives in Boothbay Harbor and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 1995 novel, INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Set in the summer and fall of 1960 in Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada, this is a lengthy novel, but brilliant and well-crafted, disturbing and sad for its vivid and convincing portrayal of the naïve innocence and false image of the perfect family.
Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner, are the children of Bev and Neera Parsons, a couple whose unlikely marriage is a brittle façade of fabricated hope and simmering resentment.  Their father, Bev, is a disgraced, retired Air Force captain, full of phony optimism and little potential.  Neera is a pseudo-intellectual who thinks she married below her station.
The Parsons are a military family whose frequent moves from base to base, state to state, keep them out of balance.  They have no friends, no sense of belonging anywhere.  When Bev’s economic prospects decline, he and his wife decide to rob a bank to settle a debt with some unpleasant and dangerous characters.  Of course, the bank robbery is a debacle, a good example of a bad plan poorly executed, with predictable results.
When their parents are quickly arrested and imprisoned, Dell and his sister are stunned and embarrassed, but most importantly, they are abandoned.  She runs away into a life of obscurity, and he is sent to live with a stranger in Canada.  Dell is ill-equipped to be on his own:  “I was still acting on the trust that adults do strange things that in the end are revealed as right, after which someone takes care of you.”  And of course, he eventually and painfully discovers he is wrong.
The stranger, Arthur Remlinger, is a mysterious American ex-patriot living in Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, where he owns the local hotel.  Dell lives alone in a filthy hovel, bathes in a bucket, and works for Remlinger at the hotel cleaning room and toilets, and with the hunting parties Remlinger organizes for “sports” to shoot geese and ducks.
During this curious period in Dell’s life, he learns a great deal from a hired man, Charley Quarters, a Metis who knows the real reason Remlinger came to Canada fifteen years before.  And the more Dell learns, the more intrigued he becomes with this enigmatic man.  However, when two strangers drive in from Detroit, Dell’s involvement with Remlinger becomes much more than just youthful fascination.  And there is nothing he can do about it.
How Dell deals with the curves life has thrown at him is particularly interesting, as Ford paints a convincing picture of how the reality of life never seems to be even close to what someone might expect.  And this is a lesson Dell must learn the hard way.
What happens in Canada in 1960 and later is both shocking and poignantly satisfying, as Dell’s uncertain future turns out much different than even he dreamed.  This story will keep the reader thinking long after the last page is turned.
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