Tuesday, November 13, 2012
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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