‘Canada’ by Richard Ford

What’s worse than a mediocre book? A book that starts out really, really well and then loses you.

I began Canada by Richard Ford with great anticipation. How’s this for an opening –

“First I’ll tell you 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.”

Kapow! Opening lines don’t much better than that, do they? I imagine for authors it’s always a risk to reveal the ending, or the climax of the story on the first page and then slowly reveal how the characters got there. It may be difficult to pull off, but when this kind of ‘reverse story-telling’ (I’m sure there is a technical name) is executed well, it makes for compelling reading. Interestingly, for a book that starts out with a punch, Canada unfolds in a measured, languorous way, perfectly matched to the hot, lazy summer that the first scenes are set in.

The story is narrated by Dell Parsons, a boy living in Great Falls, Montana. The Parsons are a military family and as such, have moved from town to town. Dell’s father, Bev, is a charismatic, proud and sweet-talking Southerner who errs slightly on the shady-side of life with various money-making schemes. Ultimately these schemes, although mostly illegal, are small-potatoes compared to what Bev eventually gets involved in. Dell’s mother, Neeva, is a curious character – she’s from an educated, immigrant, Jewish family and it’s clear that in Bev, she made a ‘poor match’.

“While from a distance, it may seem that our parents were merely not made for one another, it was more true that when our mother married our father, it betokened a loss, and her life changed forever – and not in a good way – as she surely must’ve believed.”

As Dell tells it,  his parents weren’t reckless people. It was more poor instinct and bad luck that had them rob a bank. In the days following his parents arrest, Dell is saved by a family friend before the authorities think to arrive and jettisoned to a remote, isolated town in Canada. Here he meets the mysterious American, Arthur Remlinger, and slowly secrets are revealed.

The story is broken into three parts – the robbery, Dell’s move to Canada and lastly an ‘epilogue’. I ripped through the first part of the story. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. The characters were glorious in their detail from Dell’s obsession with chess and his wish to keep bees to the maturing twin sister, Berner, and her horrid boyfriend. Dell’s father, Bev, jumps off the page – has is a loveable rogue and plies Dell with his wisdom on everything from cars to Native Americans. I really liked Bev, even when he was robbing a bank (which he did almost apologetically).

Dell’s modest hopes and dreams and incredible resilience is both perplexing (where’s the anger?!) and endearing. He observes, “Children know normal better than anyone”  and against this ‘normal-ness’ or ordinariness, his parents rob a bank.

“You’d think that to watch your parents be handcuffed, called bank robbers to their faces and driven away to jail, and for you to be left behind might make you lose your mind. It might make you run the rooms of your house in a frenzy and wail and abandon yourself to despair, and for nothing to be right again. And for someone that might be true. But you don’t know how you’ll act in such a situation until it happens. I can tell you most of that is not what took place, though of course life was changed forever.”

So where did Canada lose me? Dell’s arrival in Canada. There were new and interesting characters and the description of life and the landscape perfectly bleak but the story lost momentum. Thankfully it won me again (although not all of me like part one, with its descriptions of bee keeping, chess and the State Fair), with the final part, notably the heartfelt scenes between Dell and Berner.

I can’t go past something made with honey to partner this book, in honour of Dell’s abandoned bee dreams. One of my summer BBQ staples is the unbelievably delicious Chilli and Honey Marinade which I use on lamb cutlets – so, so good! The pic below is from Grow Harvest Cook which features a sensational carrot salad, perfect with tasty cutlets.

3/5 All reviews are subjective so I really hope mine of this book doesn’t put you off reading it. Yes, my attention waned midway through the story but Ford’s characters are superb and memorable – on that basis alone, it’s worth reading Canada.

6 responses

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