Canada


First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later (p. 3).

Thus
begins this luminous masterpiece by Richard Ford, a book that captures
its reader from the first line to the last.  The narrator is Dell
Parsons, now 66, as he recalls his life in Great Falls, Montana and his
eventual journey to the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada. 

John Banville summarizes Canada's plot in an eloquent review for The Guardian (guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 May 2012):

The
year is 1960, and the Parsons family--father Bev, mother Neeva, and
15-year-old Dell and his twin sister, Berner-- are settled, just about,
in the city of Great Falls, Montana, having moved there four years
previously.  Bev, a good ol' boy from Alabama, had been an air force
bombardier who saw action in the Philippines and Osaka... Neeva, short
for Geneva, "a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair,
vestiges of which ran down her jawline," is Jewish, and has literary
pretensions, or longings, at least.  She and Bev are an archetypal
American married couple of the time, who just happen to become bank
robbers.

Just the premise of this book is ingenious
and worthy of exploring. Dell explains to us that his father returns
from the war with an "unspecified gravity" (p. 7) and a misunderstanding
of the world and his place in it. He has grand plans and lacks a
moral compass.  In an attempt to make more money while stationed at
Great Falls, he gets involved in illegal meat smuggling. He seemingly
rationalizes his behavior by believing he is being passed over for
promotions. His retirement from the Air Force at age 37 in 1956 may have
been a face-saving move, but none-the-less, leaves him at loose ends.

As
a civilian, Bev tries selling cars and then gets involved in another
beef smuggling scheme with a group of Great Falls Indians.  When meat
spoils and the Indians demand their payment or else, he hatches a scheme
to rob a bank.  We gradually learn that he has glamorized bank robbery
while still in the Air Force. That Neeva gets involved only shows the
extent of her own lack of judgment. As Dell looks back on the event
fifty years from when it occurred, he recalls:

Neeva
came to the remarkably mistaken conclusion that robbing a bank was a
risk that would facilitate things she wanted.  It was a miscalculation
not very different from the one that has swayed her to marry Bev Parsons
in the first place--giving up on the life she could've had , to lead
what might've seemed a more adventurous and unexpected one, but wasn't. 
With half the money from a robbery she wouldn't have to go back to her
miscalculated life...
(p. 92)

The second part of
the book deals with the ramifications of a robbery that failed.  To
describe what happens would be a spoiler.  How Berner and Dell cope and
the characters they meet along the way make up the thematic core of the
novel.

Canada is as much about alienation as it
is about consequences for one's actions.  Ford's descriptions of the
vast expanses of land that make up Montana, as well as his depiction of
the rustic prairie across the U.S. border, are highly evocative. They
call forth a sense of vastness, desolation, and loneliness.  These outer
expanses mirror the emptiness the characters feel within. Despite this,
the tone with which Dell recalls events is flat and utterly cerebral. 
Dell's unemotional nature--his ability to get on with his life and not
feel anger toward his parents--allows him to lead a full if uneventful
life.  Berner, like Neeva, is inclined to make rash choices and act on
her emotions.  Like that of her mother, Berner's personal history
becomes a series of tragic mistakes. We learn of them as Dell does--at
the end of Berner's life.

Canada's achievement
as a literary work lies not only in the unique story it tells, but in
its empathetic character portrayal.  The book's narrator, Dell, bears
witness to his parents' misguided endeavors.  He later witnesses a
much more horrific crime and even partakes in part of it.  That he is
able to look at everyone, including himself, with detached understanding
and forgiveness makes him remarkable.

Canada
is a book whose appeal will negate age and gender differences.  It
examines misguided decisions and their tragic repercussions.  But,
ultimately, this book is about the redemptive powers of truth,
self-awareness and responsibility.  To this reader, it bears some
similarity in theme and style to Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  And like that fine work, it too is likely to become part of the canon of great American novels.

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