-How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stitch of land growing smaller and smaller. Or in a balloon swept up on a column of prairie air, the ground widening and flattening, growing less and less distinct below you. You notice it, or you don’t notice it. But you’re already too far away, and all is lost.
-We don’t discriminate carefully enough, you know, between things that seem alike but are different.
Canada is a book about boundaries, about how the line between two apparently discrete states can be so thin as to be virtually non-existent. Richard Ford is so skilled a writer that he manages to weave this theme into nearly every aspect of his book, without ever being ham-fisted, with prose that is never flashy but always strikingly deliberate, beating slowly and inexorably towards the end. Consider, for example, that the very title of the book is the name of a place we don’t visit until halfway into the novel. The first half is spent in the United States (and despite its title the book is indisputably relevant to the American experience), and the boundary and difference between the two countries becomes part of the book’s themes. There’s also the example of the narrator and his twin sister, who are fraternal twins who look nothing alike, but who somehow share an understanding about the events that befall them. There’s also the line between normalcy and deviance, and between truth and memory. This last is especially significant, as Canada quietly recognizes and acknowledges the role a reader plays in making up a text, especially when that text is made up of one’s own memories.
Dell Parsons is a 60 year old Canadian schoolteacher whose parents, when he was 15, robbed a bank and went to prison for it. We know this from the very beginning of the book. Ford, demonstrating that real suspense is generated not by not knowing what happens, but by not knowing how or why it happens, doesn’t need to drop a bank robbery on us halfway through the book. He tells us right away that it happens, and we spend the first half of the book with 15-year-old Dell in Great Falls, Montana, getting to know him, his twin sister, and his parents, whose actions he is at a loss to understand or explain: “When you think hard on why two reasonably intelligent people decide to rob a bank, and why they remained together after love had begun to evaporate and blow away, there are always reasons like these, reasons that in the light of a later day don’t make any sense at all and have to be invented.” As a boy, Dell cannot accept that there may not be reasons for things that happen. His interests include beekeeping and chess, both of which he studies out of appreciation for their inherent order. When his parents rob a bank and leave him and his sister to their own devices, he is more vulnerable than his sister because he still has the idea that an adult will be able to help him make sense of things.
Canada itself becomes a metaphor for the lack of structure in Dell’s life:
Once we were out of the hills, there were no landmarks. No mountains or rivers– like the Highwoods, or the Bear’s Paw, or the Missouri– that told you where you were… There was no feeling, once the hills disappeared behind us, of a findable middle point from which other points could draw a reference. A person could easily get lost or go crazy here, since the middle was everywhere and everything at once.
Dell’s external difficulties are apparent: he must survive the rest of his childhood without parents. But the larger arc of his story is about deciding whether life is better lived with an imposed meaning than with none at all, and what that meaning should be. He must decide whether or not a boundary is even a real thing.
Despite Dell’s uncertainties, the experience of reading Canada is one fortified by the conviction that you are in the hands of a writer you can completely trust. Ford’s careful, understated prose style and measured pacing tell us that he has nothing to prove. His ability to maintain tension despite the lack of major twists or turns reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and it’s hard for me to think of a higher compliment than a comparison to that book. I was compelled to read to the end by sheer force of caring what happened to Dell, and the knowledge that Ford had something important to say, and I wanted to hear it to the end.