The Children’s Story

Reviewed by Gordon Bölling

For the summer 2013 issue of Brick, the editors of the literary journal asked forty-four writers to contribute short pieces on their favorite endings. John Irving paid homage to Moby-Dick, Sven Birkerts found praise for To the Lighthouse, and David Young recommended the ending of Richard Ford’s most recent novel Canada. Should Linda Spalding and her co-editors at Brick one day decide to publish a similar series of essays on the beginnings of stories it is almost certain that someone will choose Ford’s novel as his or her favorite beginning. The novel’s stunning first paragraph has been quoted in virtually every review of Canada that I have come across: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.” At the end of the opening paragraph, readers may be forgiven for wondering whether Ford has not just spoiled the plot in one fell swoop. With a beginning such as this, how can he create enough suspense to carry the reader through the 400-odd pages of his novel? In Canada, Ford is not interested in story in a narrow or traditional sense of the word. His main focus does not lie on a specific sequence of events. Instead, Canada is much more about the consequences of certain acts than it is about the acts themselves. That is why Ford can be so free as to give away significant parts of the plot in the opening paragraph. Written with great precision, Canada is an extraordinary novel about the ways in which we try to give meaning to our lives.

Apparently, the idea behind Canada occupied Ford for more than two decades. He first visited southwestern Saskatchewan in 1984, a region that now serves as the setting for the second part of the novel. Part one is set in Montana, a state that Ford has previously written about in the short-story collection Rock Springs (1987), as well as in the novelWildlife (1990). Canada is told by Dell Parsons, who, in the narrative present of the year 2011, is about to retire from his position as a teacher of English in Windsor, Ontario. Although Dell has spent most of his life in Canada, he grew up in the States where his father served in the Air Force. In Great Falls, Montana, Dell and his twin sister Berner live ordinary enough lives until the moment their parents rob a bank. A threshold has been crossed, and things will never be the same again. In Canada, the robbery is only the first in a series of figurative or literal border crossings. Following the arrest of their parents, Berner runs away from home, whereas Dell is taken north into Canada by a friend of his mother’s. His escape from juvenile authorities only leads Dell straight into the arms of Arthur Remlinger, who is hiding himself from American authorities in the small Saskatchewan town of Fort Royal. A Kurtz-like character, he holds a strong fascination for the fifteen-year-old boy. It is not a coincidence that Heart of Darkness is among the books that Dell will later teach to his students in Windsor. When his past catches up with him, Remlinger kills two Americans in cold blood. Dell becomes a witness to the double murder and is then forced to help with the removal of the bodies. Throughout the novel, Dell continuously tries to understand and to accommodate the events that shape his life and the life of his twin sister: “But the children’s story—which mine and my sister’s is—is ours to weigh and apportion and judge as we see it.” In fact, Dell’s entire narrative can be read as an attempt to regain some measure of control over his life story: “Through all these memorable events, normal life was what I was seeking to preserve for myself. When I think of those times […] it is all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to restore and maintain my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I’ve crossed. I know it’s only me who makes these connections. But not to try to make them is to commit yourself to the waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair.” That Dell makes his way back to what we call an ordinary life is a victory against the odds.

When Richard Ford discussed his then-new book on The Colbert Report in June 2012, the show’s host berated Ford for not naming his novel America. In fact, it is not that often that American writers of Ford’s standing set their books in Canada, let alone name themCanada. In the classical American novel, for example in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Canada is a place of refuge. In Ford’s novel, Canada as a place defies such clear-cut definitions. When first crossing into Saskatchewan, the vastness of the Canadian prairie simply overwhelms Dell. Watching from the car window, he experiences a sense of profound isolation and loss: “Once we were out of the hills, there were no landmarks. No mountains or rivers—like the Highwoods or the Bear’s Paw, or the Missouri—that told you where you were. There were even fewer trees. . . . There was no feeling, once the hills disappeared behind us, of a findable middle point from which other points could draw a reference. A person could easily get lost or go crazy here, since the middle was everywhere and everything at once.” In the course of the novel, what Canada means to Dell is changed to its opposite. It is in Canada that Dell becomes a witness to the murder of two men. Still, Canada is also the place that finally affords him a new perspective on his life: “In time, I would be able to explain it all to myself—somewhere. Somehow.” Though his students in Windsor might believe they can detect the Yankee in him, Dell himself has no desire to see his birthplace in nearby Michigan or to visit Great Falls. Canada does not save Dell in a way that involves positive action but it is the place that allowed him to become who he is. Richard Ford’sCanada is a first-rate novel by one of the outstanding American writers of our time. It is fully deserving of a large Canadian audience.

This review “The Children’s Story” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 158-59.

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