Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Novel's coda worth the trip through Canada
Margaret Atwood and Guy Vanderhaeghe can rest easy. Despite his title, American heavyweight Richard Ford has not pushed them off their pedestals by producing the great Canadian novel.
But Canada is a good one. It is planned and executed with the skill of a veteran who knows his craft. And it has an ending that justifies the stately and deliberate pace that leads to it.
Some readers, however, especially those unaccustomed to literary fiction, might find the storyline too thin and Ford's narrator, a 65-year-old school teacher looking back on the watershed events of his 16th year in 1960, too passive to hold their attention.
Southeastern Saskatchewan is the setting for the novel's second part, the first taking place in Great Falls, Mont., a town Ford used before in his 1991 novel, Wildfire. Winnipeg makes a cameo, as does Portage la Prairie and St. Paul's High School, but not until the final act.
Ford's title is as metaphoric as literal. He is concerned with characters whose behaviour crosses a line, an ethical border, and makes it impossible for them to return to their old lives.
He is also keenly interested in the small differences that lead to big changes. Here, for example, is narrator Dell Parsons, at 15, in a car heading north, with Saskatchewan on the horizon:
"It was Canada there. Indistinguishable. Same sky. Same daylight. Same air. But different."
A few weeks later, settled into a new routine in a one grain-elevator town, Fort Royal, Dell gets the lay of the land. "[I]t was a place odd for being in a separate country, and yet didn't feel or appear so different from what I already knew. If anything the similarity to America made its foreignness profound."
Canada's first half relates how Dell finds himself in this strange land, separated from his mother, father and twin sister. He is spirited across the border by a family friend after his parents, hapless and mismatched in every way, land in jail after they pull a bank robbery to solve their money problems.
The second part builds up to another crime, a double murder, in fact, as Dell falls under the sway of an enigmatic American hiding out in Saskatchewan.
It takes Ford almost 200 pages to get to the robbery. His method, as readers familiar with such acclaimed novels as The Sportswriter (1986) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1995) will know, is to examine every action and motive in forensic detail.
Teenage narrators have served many authors well. But unlike, say, J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or Miriam Toews' Nomi Nickel, Dell is neither rebellious nor troubled. (Those traits belong to his sister.) He describes himself as a "good boy" who reads encyclopedias and looks forward to returning to high school so he can join the chess club.
Ford employs several mirroring elements: the teenage twins, the two crimes, the two father figures. His prose is conversational yet studded with literary flourishes. Dell compares his parents' marriage, which gets progressively worse, to "a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong."
The plot's slow pace may result in minds wandering to contemplate some of Canada's problems. An incident of incest goes largely unexplained. The murders are almost anticlimactic. Most notable is that Dell does not act; he is acted upon.
"The person I was now was not the person I would have been in Great Falls," he observes toward the end. "It was unclear if I would ever be that boy again ... since I felt I would soon go to Winnipeg and start a whole different and better life there, with everything including the truth left behind."
In a wonderful 40-page coda, Ford mostly gets at Dell's truth. A moving and satisfying conclusion, it more than compensates for any of Canada's previous imperfections. In that way, it's a bit like Winnipeg, if not all of Canada.
Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.
- By Richard Ford
- HarperCollins, 418 pages, $32
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J11
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