Dell Parsons, the first-person narrator of Richard Ford's majestic new novel, Canada, is a recently retired, 66-year-old American English teacher living in Windsor, Ont., directly across the river from the imposing skyline of the U.S. city of Detroit. While he was still teaching, he tells us, he tried to encourage his students "to think of their existence on the planet not as just a catalogue of random events endlessly unspooling, but as a life – both abstract and finite. This, as a way of taking account."
Taking account himself, he is remembering the year he and his twin sister, Berner, turned 15; a time when a pair of significant and traumatizing events took place, setting him off on a path he would never, essentially, be able to follow back to its source. The book tracks the trajectory and the consequences of these events, and details the harsh landscapes in which they took place, but it does not build toward them.
From the outset, the reader knows what is bound to occur and is therefore eerily aware of the kind of inevitability that is married to circumstance. In the opening sentences of the book, Dell announces his intentions for the remaining 415 pages. "First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."
Fully entering the body and the mind of 15-year-old Dell half a century later, Ford is able to achieve a doubling of point of view, creating a powerful song of innocence wrestling with experience. Dell, small for his age, interested in chess, beekeeping and The Book of Knowledge, is an unlikely candidate for the life he is thrown into after his parents are taken to jail and he, in turn, is spirited away from his home in Great Falls, Mont., over the border to Saskatchewan and into the questionable care of an American hotel keeper, Arthur Remlinger, and his Métis sidekick, Charlie Quarters.
Desperate to go to school and frightened that he is missing the kind of knowledge that a formal education imparts, Dell nevertheless will learn much from his two companions. In his unfinished, adolescent state, he is a magnet of sorts, drawing toward him the counsel, confessions and hard philosophies of these older men in a tough, hardscrabble world of flimsy temporary architecture and broken, transient lives.
The most affecting and heartbreaking character in the book, however, is Dell's lost father, Bev (Beverly) Parsons. A retired air force pilot, full of jokes, tricks and performances for the children he clearly adores, he is a man whose naiveté is both endearing and lethal. (For instance, Ford's description of him working on a jigsaw puzzle of Niagara Falls, while his life unravels, is almost too painful to read.)
Married to the wrong woman, enduring the claustrophobia of a nuclear family thrown into co-dependence by moving too often from one military base to another, drifting into petty crime, he is, notwithstanding, stubbornly loyal to and concerned about the welfare of his wife and family. He is a man who fully believes that, by crossing the border into the sparsely populated state of North Dakota to rob a bank, he will have for all intents and purposes rendered himself invisible, and that he will be successful because there will be virtually no one there to see him. He convinces his otherwise intelligent and skeptical wife to drive the getaway vehicle, and everyone's life is permanently changed.
Saskatchewan, where 15-year-old Dell crosses his own border to enter the Canada of the novel, presents itself as a "through the looking glass" kingdom, with everything there, from the reigning monarch, Remlinger – a reverberating father figure for Dell – to the landscape itself, exaggerated and askew. But, oddly, this is less a reflection or mirror image than an echo – tinny, distorted and hollow – a stark announcement shouted back from an opposite side. This is a spare and physically precise terrain, one where a neon sign on a hotel a dozen miles away can burn into the retina on a prairie night in winter, and advice and warnings are delivered while a quantity of shot geese are being gutted and beheaded in a subzero room.
There is a sure-footed, plain-spoken quality to Ford's language that is pitch perfect for the tale being told, as well as for creating the atmosphere of the landscape, both physical and emotional, with which Dell must come to terms. It is a language that back-flips over Ford's celebrated Bascombe Trilogy (he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, the second of the three books) and into the cadences and reflections of his beautiful 1990 novel Wildlife, also told from the point of view of a teenaged boy. In both books, tragedies occur and families self-destruct in the company of elemental extremities – the forest fires of Wildlife, the blizzards of Canada – and yet Ford's voice is measured and calm.
Perhaps that is because, in face of its drama, a book like Canada – dignified, gracefully attired and conspicuously understated – is a procession, not a parade. Not "endlessly unspooling random events," but rather the chronicle of a life, the shape of it, with both its periods of grief and confusion, and its insistent daily-ness, fully examined. And always in attendance, there is the generous heart, beating, alive.
Jane Urquhart's most recent novel, Sanctuary Line, which crosses the border now rather than then, was recently released in paperback