Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A powerhouse opening to a dazzling work of fiction

by Richard Ford

Every review of Canada is going to begin the same way, with the stunning opening sentences of the novel.  “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." That’s a bit more sensational than the average start of a serious literary work, but it telegraphs so much of what is to come.  In fact, I’ll give you a run-down of what those opening sentences illustrate:

·         This novel is told from the point of view of a first-person narrator who speaks with a simple, clear voice. 
·         Despite the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree, this is a plot-driven novel bordering on a literary thriller.
·         This is a coming-of-age tale.
·         This novel is being told in reflection from some point in the future.

That’s a fair amount of info to glean from three sentences!

The novel’s narrator is 15-year-old Dell Parsons, one half of a set of fraternal twins.  The other half is his sister, Berner, older by six minutes and always the more worldly of the two.  The novel opens in the summer of 1960, and the family of four (with father, Bev and mother, Neeva) is living in Great Falls, Montana.  The kids have had a fairly rootless upbringing, due to Bev’s Air Force career and a lack of extended family connections. 

Dell relates the family history, beginning with his parents’ courtship and ill-advised marriage.  “…they were no doubt simply wrong for each other and should never have married or done any of it, should’ve gone their separate ways after their first passionate encounter, no matter its outcome.  The longer they stayed on, and the better they knew each other, the better she at least could see their mistake, and the more misguided their lives became as time went on—like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense.” 

It’s the older Dell, nearing retirement, that can look back on his past and family history and see things so clearly.  His story is told in a combination of his older and younger voices.  Nonetheless, given the above, it’s no surprise he describes his family as “doomed.”  Bev doesn’t adjust well to life outside the military, and a series of poor decisions leads the family, and particularly the teens, into dire and life-altering circumstances.

Like all novels being told in reflection, this one features quite a bit of foreshadowing—again, you can see it in those opening sentences.  This continues throughout the novel, and there’s a reason that foreshadowing is one of the most commonly used literary devices.  Because it’s so darn effective!  Rather than diffusing the novel’s tension, it ratchets it up, and it definitely keeps readers turning pages.  It’s amazing how powerful a simple “I never saw her again” or “considering how her life turned out” can be, and when the foreshadowing is of a crime, even more so.

Despite the novel’s page-turning plot, characters are given equal attention.  This is obvious early on as Dell describes his father:
“He was a non-stop talker, was open-minded for a southerner, had graceful obliging manners that should’ve taken him far in the Air Force, but didn’t.  His quick hazel eyes would search around any room he was in, finding someone to pay attention to him—my sister and me, ordinarily.  He told corny jokes in a southern theatrical style, could do card tricks and magic tricks, could detach his thumb and replace it, make a handkerchief disappear and come back.  He could play boogie-woogie piano, and sometimes would ‘talk Dixie’ to us and sometimes like Amos ‘n’ Andy.  He had lost some of his hearing by flying the Mitchells, and was sensitive about it.  But he looked sharp in his ‘honest’ GI haircut and blue captain’s tunic and generally conveyed a warmth that was genuine and made my twin sister and me love him.” 
That’s only a small part of Dell’s recollection of Bev.  Could I describe my own father so well?  I doubt it.  Even relatively minor characters have a feel of completeness about them, leaving me with linger questions about them long after they’d come and gone.  How much did Mildred really know about her brother’s life?  Did Florence see Dell again? 

The novel’s prose is not ornate, but it’s beautifully crafted.  Ford expertly paints the time and places in which the novel is set.  Clearly, I could go on quoting from and discussing this novel indefinitely, but better you should make these discoveries on your own.  Near the novel’s end, Dell states, “There’s little else to say.  I have that as my satisfaction.”  And by the time you reach this astonishing work’s end, you’ll have yours as well.

NOTE:  I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Ford read from and speak about Canada at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC this evening.  Below is video of his Q & A session after he read from the novel.  These three videos are 8-10 minutes long, each.  Sorry that the video is slightly out of focus.  The FlipCam I use has no focus control.  This was my first time hearing Mr. Ford speak.  Very interesting! 


  1. I stopped reading the blog part way in as I was afraid you may give the book away. I will read the reviews. Thanks for making me aware of it.

    1. Hey Jeremy,

      Yeah, I know I write long reviews, but I try not to give too much away. I think I succeeded in this case, but it's always a challenge. If you're worried about potential spoilers, you can't go wrong by not reading. :-)