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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What I'm Reading: Canada

Still playing catch up on reviews.  According to my Shelfari account, I finished Canada by Richard Ford on June 20th.  Better late than never.  And, at least now, the holds are done on this excellent novel, so if you like what I have to say below, you may be able to go to the library today and check it out for yourself.

But I digress...

Richard Ford is one of my favorite novelists. He is master at telling a story beautifully, clearly, and in a way that I can experience it with all of my senses, but without being too wordy.  His books read easily. You sit down, open the pages, and fall into the lives of the protagonists.  It should be said however, that his protagonists are always seriously flawed.  Not flawed so badly that they are unreliable or unsympathetic, but these people do not always make the best choices.  Readers will squirm knowing that their choices are bad, but at the same time, we cannot look away, and we root for things to turn out okay in the end.  And, they normally do turn out okay; not necessarily happily ever after, but okay.

You can click here to see other posts where I reviewed or recommended books by Richard Ford.

These general statements above hold true in Canada.  This novel is Dell Parsons life story, but the first half of the novel recounts a summer in the 1950s when he was 15 and everything changed.  Living in rural Montana with his twin sister Berner and his parents, Dell and Berner's life is thrown into chaos when their parents rob a North Dakota bank.

This first half of the book moves back in forth in time as the entire book is framed as coming from a grown Dell's point of view.  So we see things through Dell's eyes as they happen, but adult Dell is able to occasionally add more detail of things he realized later in life.

This first half of the novel is an intense character study.  We learn about the four members of the family.  Dell's descriptions of his parents, their relationship, and their motivations are engrossing.  The details about his Dad and his shady business dealings are also interesting coming from the child's eye view.  His relationship with his sister and his awkwardness at growing up are also probed.  Since we know from the first lines of the book that the robbery is coming, this half of the book is not about the plot as it is about the characters.

In fact, I should mention that in the first line of the novel we know that there is a bank robbery and some murders.  This sets a menacing tone from the start.  And then the setting-- desolate, dirty, hot-- underscores it.  This is a family on the edge, with nowhere left to go, much like the town they are in.

Also, I have to say one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book is when the State Fair is in town and Dell, so longing to go, never gets there.  Ford takes you with Dell to the edge of anticipation, he almost gets there, but then, alas, it is not to be.  This scene stands as a clear example of how Ford tells a story, and presents the overall tone of this novel.  While Dell does not get to the fair, we know he will turn out okay in the end, because he is narrating from an adulthood which he hints throughout this first half, is going just fine.

Part 2 is after his parents are caught up and sent to jail.  Dell's mom has made arrangements for the twins to be sent to the open prairies of Saskatchewan to work for a family member of a friend.  Berner runs off with her boyfriend, leaving Dell to make the long, illegal trip alone.  Dell is a minor who is about to become a ward of the state with both parents in jail. Crossing into Canada is a delicate operation fraught with peril.

Once in Saskatchewan, Dell works for Arthur, an American, charismatic property owner and shady business man.  Arthur feels a kinship to Dell because they are both on the run from their pasts, living in a foreign country.

This second half of the novel is Dell's true coming of age.  He is sent to an even more remote, more desolate place, but here he finds hope.  Again, not much happens in terms of action until there is a flurry of it at the end, but Dell grows and learns to understand people better.  Working in the hotel he sees all types of people and learns the truth about Arthur, and people in general.

The country of Canada leads to Dell's redemption.  It is here, on his own, without any family, that he can finally become the adult he was meant to be.

Canada (the novel) presents a harsh world view, but it is an ultimately uplifting one.  Dell has a tough first 16 years of his life, but in the end, those tough years are what made him into a happy and successful adult-- a happily married teacher.  Dell loses his innocence but gains a good life in return. He learns how to judge the character of a person and how to negotiate the world of adults.

One of the themes of the novel is what it means to cross borders.  Literally, Dell crosses into Canada and his parents face stiffer jail time because they cross into ND to rob a bank.  There is always talk about moving somewhere else, crossing a border to make things better.  But figuratively, when Dell crosses into Canada he begins his adult life.  Though he must go through some hardship to get there, he will have a much better life than was ever possible back with his family all because he crossed that international line.

Overall,  this is a story where character and setting reign supreme.  Many of the secondary characters are more fully developed than some protagonists I have found in other books.  And the sparse but elegant prose Ford uses to describe Montana and Canada made me feel like I was there with Dell.  That being said, there is still enough suspense and story here to draw in more readers than Ford's Bascombe novels (which many readers find too "navel gazing" without enough action).  With those first lines about robbery and murder, what should be a leisurely paced book, speeds up because of the suspense of wanting to know who gets murdered and by whom.

Finally, the novel makes a statement about the bonds of family.  I don't want to give away details, but Ford presents the truly complicated nature of familial bonds in a believable way.  Again, with sparse but elegant prose, he speaks volumes about the pull of family.

This is a a novel that will be on many of the 2012 end of the year best lists.  If you want to read an award winning novelist who is still at the top of his game, check out Canada.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character centered, sparse but elegant prose, coming of age

Readalikes: Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta are authors who like Ford write about flawed but lovable men and their choices and relationships with dark humor and a dash of grittiness.  They all are excellent wordsmiths who focus on character while still providing an engaging story.  If you are a fan of any of these three writers, I would suggest trying the others.

A younger author who may be the Generation X version of Richard Ford is Jonathan Tropper.  He uses flawed protagonists, black humor, and engaging character development to move his internally motivated stories along.  Click here and scroll down to see my review of How to Talk to a Widower, which is also about the complicated bonds of family with a protagonist who has a twin sister.  He also is faced with a life altering event that forces hime to "grow up."

If readers are looking for a similar writing style, tone, and theme to Ford, but also want that wide open, Western setting, I would suggest the novels of Brady Udall.  Click here for my detailed review of The Lonely Polygamist, an excellent title readalike suggestion for Canada.

Finally, if you are looking for more western landscape and complex family tales Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is another suggestion.  It is a bit more lyrical and spiritual than Canada, but it has an engaging teenaged narrator and a family on the run storyline.

Looking back at my past reading, I also found this post reviewing two narrative nonfiction suggestions that are also good options: American Buffalo by Steven Rinella and The Big Burn by Timothy Egan.

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