The first two sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada are, I suspect, destined to be among the most quoted of 2012. Even so, I cannot resist using them here, too, because they are the perfect opening for the book:
“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
These words are spoken by 65-year-old Dell Parsons, the book’s narrator, as he considers the fifteen-year old boy he was in 1960 just before his parents made the stupid decision that would almost destroy him and Berner, his twin sister. The Parsons had been transferred to Montana by the U.S. Air Force, but now Dell’s father is a civilian, and having decided that Great Falls is a good place to raise his family, Bev Parsons is struggling to find a job that will allow him to do that. To young Dell, nothing is more important than the fast-approaching start of his freshman year in the town’s public high school. Up to now, the twins have been encouraged not to develop ties to the places they pass through with the Air Force, so Dell is eager to transform Great Falls into the hometown he has never known.
But when Dell’s parents are arrested for a North Dakota bank robbery, his hopes of finally settling down and making long term friends are destroyed before he can even set foot in his new school. Dell and Berner are surprised to find themselves, at least temporarily, forgotten by the legal system that has both their parents locked tight in the city jail. After Berner, the worldly twin, strikes out on her own, his mother’s only friend agrees to deliver Dell to her brother in the remote prairies of Saskatchewan in order to keep him from falling into the hands of Montana juvenile authorities.
There, still a very naïve child at fifteen, Dell falls under the control and influence of two men who will further destroy his sense of who he is. Charlie Quarters, the Leonard Hotel’s strange, half-breed hunting guide into whose charge Dell is delivered, will use him as an extra pair of hands. Arthur Remlinger, an American hiding out in Canada for reasons of his own, is the hotel’s owner. Unfortunately for Dell, Remlinger, a sociopath of sorts, will never be the father figure he needs so badly, and will, instead, almost finish the job of destroying his life.
Canada is a character-driven novel with the plot of a crime thriller, a literary novel that will keep the reader turning pages. Throughout his narrative, Dell Parsons gives intriguing little hints that all is not as it seems and that he should have figured things out sooner than he did. Ford’s characters are so well developed that even their most bizarre actions are believable in the context of who the reader knows them to be. With perhaps one exception (Charlie Quarters), there are no black and white characters in Canada. Each has a distinct set of strengths, weaknesses, and motivations that allows them to be sucked into whatever happens around them.
Canada is about borders – literal ones and symbolic ones – and what they really mean. The lesson for Dell Parsons is that once some borders are crossed, they are crossed forever. There is no going back.