Canada, by Richard Ford

This 2012 work is a beautifully written novel, but one I did not find that interesting. (Is my reaction too personal, for I like Ford’s work.) It is the story of a family, and then about the son in that family. It is thus two stories, but not quite two novels, for it continually recalls for us this family of four.

The Parsons family consists of father Bev, mother Neeva, and twin children, daughter Berner and son Dell. Their story is narrated by Dell 50 years after the jailing of Bev and Neeva, who robbed a bank in order to pay back criminals for beef stolen from them. The novel then moves to Dell’s life in Canada, to which he has fled in order to escape being institutionalized because there are no parents at home. In Canada, he confronts murders that were mentioned on the novel’s first page, along with the bank robbery. It is the first of the author’s foreboding, presumably to create interest in this otherwise run-of-the-mill family.

The Parsons family is dysfunctional, however. Bev is a retired air force bombardier who got Neeva pregnant (with Berner and Dell) and was obliged to marry her. And they soon become incompatible, even as they stick together. Bev is a funny, talkative, imposing person, while Neeva is shy, artistic, and barely pretty. Compounding this is that Bev becomes a failure at business when he leaves the air force to establish their home in Montana, and Neeva is never comfortable married to someone below her station.

Because we know about the bank robbery on the first page, there is little suspense in the outcome of the family story. The novel’s substance comes from the relationships among its four members, and this I grant is very well done. We feel the incompatibility of the parents and the rivalry between the children during their life together in Montana.

This family situation never intrigued me, however, as well presented as it is. And as effectively as it conveys the adults’ impact on the lives of their two children. It catches a breath of life from the parents’ incompatibility, and even more from the relationship between the two children—in which, born a few minutes earlier, Berner senses she knows more about adult life, and Dell acknowledges and accepts this.

It is just that despite the compassion of the author in presenting both their relationships and the homey details and conflicts of family life, I did not care for these people. Especially for the children, these victims of the family’s circumstances. Perhaps it is because Berner is too domineering and Dell too acquiescent. While the parents are too self-centered, refusing to make any change and refusing contact.

Once Dell is sent into “exile” in Saskatchewan, after his parents are in prison, the novel changes. It is now about Dell alone, and how he accommodates himself to his new situation. And, here again, he is not involved with a set of interesting or sympathetic characters. Which does emphasize that he is on his own. And, yes, we are interested in what will happen to him, not least because of more foreboding. Apparently there is something wrong about Arthur Remlinger, who runs the small-town hotel where Dell is working and who has taken him under his wing. Remlinger is quite a pleasant man when we meet him, however, even if he does have a mysterious past.

The atmosphere of this rural area is a strength of the novel, with Dell helping visiting huntsmen shoot the local geese as sport. But the huntsmen are not characterized, and the hotel personnel he works with barely so. He is closest to Charlie Quarters, whom he finds unpleasant, and who seems to be used mainly to inform Dell about Remlinger’s past.

But the mysteriousness of Remlinger never came across to me. He is supposed to be fleeing the U.S. because, in a union’s struggle against management, he planted a bomb which accidentally killed a man. And lives in fear that U.S. authorities will come after him. When they do, there is abrupt violence that I have not been prepared for. Apparently it comes out of the mysteriousness of Remlinger, but his character has not been sufficiently developed for me to accept that final violence.

After which, the novel effectively ends, as the narrator Dell returns to his current life 50 years later and describes the fates of the other three members of his family. Which becomes a typical wrapping up, a narrative; it is not dramatized.

To sum up, I was not drawn to this family, to their situation (even if it helps recall my own loneliness after my mother’s death—with my family life also disrupted), nor to Dell and his empty life in Canada.

As Andre Dubus III says in his Times review, this family portrait is beautifully rendered. But for me language is not enough. I need to begin with character and story. And I could not identify with the characters at home in Montana, nor get interested in this story of Dell’s lonely life in Canada. I think I needed Dell to interact emotionally with someone in Canada, rather than simply be exposed to two unpleasant characters.

The novel begins in Great Falls, Montana, which Ford wrote about in a previous novel, so one wonders how much Ford identifies with this area, and perhaps has transformed a personal experience into this novel. Yes, he is from the South, but so is Bev, and these family events could have occurred anywhere in the country. This would make the origins of this novel completely understandable, and certainly Ford has put his technical skills to excellent use here.

But I did not feel the loneliness in Dell’s life that I felt in my own life, and missing even more was an emotional connection within the family that I always find to be moving. Dell’s only connection is with his twin sister, and she escapes from family ties after their parents go to prison, leaving them both to lead separate lives. (December, 2013)

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