In discussing “Canada” with The Guardian Richard Ford talked about the concept of normal and how we develop constructs to help us deal with reality.
Said Ford: “Internal chaos does not suit us and we can’t cope with it for very long.”
So in “Canada,” Ford gives teenage Montana boy Dell Parsons a heap of internal chaos. And trouble. First, his parents—who, at least on the surface, are very decent people—rob a bank. Next, having moved to Canada to start a new life, Dell witnesses a double murder and helps bury the bodies. And, to cap things off, he keeps the secret.
“Canada” is right up there with Richard Ford’s best work—as deep and complex as anything he’s done.
The prose is spare, simple and beautiful. The voice is reflective. The events in “Canada” are being told, in the end, with the advantage of five decades of perspective. So the pace is calm and the overall tone is passive. The elder Dell is looking back, thinking things over and thinking things through.
The story is about assimilation and the ability to start over, start fresh. “Canada” is watching your parents vanish quickly and then working to settle in to a new country, a new family dynamic and observing your own morals and personality take shape. And it’s about wondering how much of the past will catch up with you. Dell’s guardian, Arthur Remlinger, also has a dark incident in his past. Being found staying in “tiny, faraway Saskatchewan” is what draws investigators north across the border. Remlinger’s decision to move across the border was “unexplained” and, therefore, suspicious. Perfect.
Dell’s twin sister is Berner, who plays a key role both in the opening section of the book and in the serene finish. In-between, To Dell, Canada “might seem like a long way away from everything” but it really isn’t. Canada may be across a border and might be another country and Dell thinks about becoming a Canadian “which would not be a big change” but it’s enough, perhaps, to declare a new life. Maybe.
In the end, Dell becomes a teacher and later encourages his students “to think of their existence on the planet not as a catalog of random events endlessly unspooling—but as a life—both abstract and finite.” He encourages students to look straight at the things they can see in broad daylight.
“In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you’ll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world.” Or, perhaps, develop a story that makes all the pieces fit.