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Book Review: Canada by Richard Ford (3/5). A great American novel?

13 Oct

This book has been at the top of my ‘To-Read’ pile for way too long. A long time ago, when I used to have cable, The Colbert Report was my favorite show on TV. I saw an interview that Ford did with Colbert which you can watch here. It made me want to read the book. I saw an audiobook of it at my parents library and thought I’d grab it right when I joined Goodreads. That’s also right when I moved out of my parents house and no longer had access to the audiobooks in their library. Unfortunately, my new library didn’t have it so instead, I waited almost two years to read this and ended up picking up a discounted copy from Barnes and Noble. So, finally, I’m able to write this review, very long in the making.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

Canada by Richard Ford

Dell Parsons knows that his sister is ugly, his mother is a social outcast, and that his dad is good at talking. As far as Dell is concerned, that’s enough. What he doesn’t know is that his parents are capable of robbing a bank and that when his parents are sent to jail, he’ll be sent to Canada. From the vantage point of time, Dell tells us the story of how he and his sister, Berner, are orphaned by outlaw parents and separated. She runs off to California and Dell is sent to live with the brother of a friend in rural Canada with a man who seems as at odds with the US rule of law as Dell’s own parents. Arthur Remlinger is a strange figure who’s hiding a few secrets of his own.

How can you not be intrigued by this opening line?

First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

I mean, come on, that’s freaking sweet. I read somewhere that Ford writes a bit like John Irving, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. It’s a pretty good comparison. Both write sweeping epics but unlike Irving, Ford concentrated on a short part of Dell’s life and how it affected him. I like that this was a short snapshot. I could see Dell change from a lost kid who didn’t know any better to a young man who knew what was happening around him and how quickly it could change. It was a very literary novel and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for a literary novel because I started to drag through it toward the end.

The characters were eccentric enough that they were perfectly acceptable. Any character who’s too normal stands out from that normalcy, but Ford’s characters were quirky while still being real. The only part that seemed off to me was when Dell and Berner sleep together after their parents are arrested. At first I thought of (obviously) John Irving’s novel Hotel New Hampshire where the sexual tension between the main character and his sister plays a huge roll in the book. But in this title, there was nothing more to it. For one night, everything felt so wrong that sleeping with your own sibling seems fine, and they do. If it hadn’t been for that one scene, I could have been sold that this was non-fiction.

I liked Berner. I’m not sure I was supposed to, but I really enjoyed all the scenes she was in. Maybe the beginning of the book was my favorite because she was in it. Her negative outlook on life was oddly refreshing. I liked when she entered the picture again later in life as an aged woman. She still had the same cynicism from her youth, multiplied by bad men and too much time spent thinking. Charley Quarters tried to fill this role while Dell was in Canada, but it just wasn’t the same.

Sometimes we feel like we’re watching life happen around us and we’re no longer players in the game. I think that defines well how Dell felt through the whole book. He was never actively involved in the terrible things that happened around him but he was a witness to all of it. You pitied him, but at the same time he wasn’t a central character to his own story.

There are times when I feel like I’m watching things change around me. I think those times fade with age, but I remember when I was younger watching the effects of the 2006 recession touch my family and not being able to do anything but watch. It’s helpless being a child, but the only thing to cure it is waiting to grow older.

I loved the build-up to the robbery. I thought Ford built up the tension really well and I kept turning the pages faster and faster to see when it would finally happen and how Dell and Berner would be affected. My excitement for this carried all the way through until Dell crossed the border into Canada.

Richard Ford Image via the Pen Faulkner website.

Richard Ford
Image via the Pen Faulkner website.

I didn’t understand the scene where Dell went to the girls’ home looking for schooling. I think it perpetuated his love for education and desire to learn, but I didn’t get much else out of it. He was uncomfortable around the strong women, but other than Berner, there were no other strong women in the novel. Again, it’s a scene I would have taken out.

Youth is full of tragedy and when we’re young, the biggest tragedy is that we can’t change it. We’re stuck and powerless while we watch adults around us make decisions that affect our lives for a long time and feel the repercussions of those decisions. Dell was at the cusp of manhood at 15 but was powerless to change what was happening around him. There are so many books out now about powerful youths in the YA dystopian genre and I see this one as a strong mirror to that, showing how in this society and this time, youth can be very powerless.

Writer’s Takeaway: Ford’s style and formatting really stuck out to e in this novel. The short and long chapter changes kept me turning the pages to get to the next chapter but provided the detail and plot development I wanted when it was needed. Starting out with the sentence I’ve quoted above was a great move. The beginning was so focused on the bank robbery that knowing it was going to happen took away some guess-work and let Ford be more flexible with his time line. By the time I got to the murders at the end, I’d forgotten they were coming because I’d been so engrossed in the bank robbery. Giving away his own ending worked really well for him in the end.

A solid read, but not what I was in the mood for at the time. Three out of Five stars.

This book fulfills ‘Montana’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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