It is 1960 and the border lies undefended, an invisible line pulled taut across the west. Montana looks like just Saskatchewan, with the “same sky” and “same daylight,” and the guards wave each car through, no documents needed and no questions asked. Yet that open border is no less real for seeming so purely notional. It stands as something more than a bit of geography, and stepping across to the north will bring young Dell Parsons into an unknown land, a psychic space he’s not quite ready to inhabit.
Richard’s Ford Canada has a terrific beginning, a pure narrative hook: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part,” and especially because Dell’s parents are such unlikely criminals. “They were just regular,” a retired Air Force supply officer and a schoolteacher, though of course, as Dell admits, “that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.” But while Dell thinks at times of Bonnie and Clyde, the novel that follows seems much quieter than those opening lines suggest—quieter and yet also less predictable and in many ways more compelling.
At 15, Ford’s narrator lives with his parents and twin sister Berner in Great Falls, the Montana mining town that Ford has used as a setting before. It is a grim unfriendly place, suspicious of outsiders, and Dell’s family has no roots there; it’s simply the location of his father’s last post. So when the Alabama-born “Bev” Parsons fails as a car salesman and falls behind in his share of a low-level racket, he persuades himself that he has no choice but more crime, and believes it will be easy. Nobody will recognize me, he insists, I’m not from around here; not realizing that that’s precisely why everyone will remember him. His wife goes along to keep him from taking the boy.
Dell will later believe that the most entirely fulfilled moment of his father’s life came when he showed his gun at the Agricultural National Bank in Creekmore, North Dakota. At that point he stepped over into some Platonic ideal of himself, and Dell will decide that the man had the soul of a bank robber long before he became one in fact. Still, actually doing it does make a change, and so “The longer I delay characterizing my father as a born criminal, the more accurate this story will be.” For the novel’s interest doesn’t lie in the robbery itself but in the way that crime alters its narrator’s life, propelling this naïve but skeptical boy into his future.
For many readers Richard Ford remains defined by the loping, digressive sentences and extended flashbacks of his Frank Bascombe novels, the New Jersey-based trilogy that began with The Sportswriter and continued with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day and ended with The Lay of the Land. Yet Dell Parsons sounds nothing like the ingratiating Frank, and though Canada has every bit of its predecessors’ ambition, Ford works here from a different part of his sensibility. Put simply, he writes differently about the American West than he does about the East. His sentences remain long but their grammar has changed, and instead of Frank’s endlessly ramifying subordinate phrases they now rely on a heavy use of the Biblical “and,” independent clauses running out across the prairie. The chapters are shorter, tighter, and more jagged, and Dell doesn’t often provide the kind of particulars in which Frank delights, defining the social meaning of towns and clothes and cars. Everything here seems just a bit more bare, and while Dell does present this tale retrospectively, remembering the boy he was from a distance of fifty years, his narration is almost entirely linear; only in its last chapters does he offer anything more than the skimpiest account of his present circumstances.
Canada’s moral compass recalls the great stories of Ford’s early collection, Rock Springs. In that book’s title piece, his petty-criminal narrator asks the reader to look closely at people like him: “Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?” What separates us may amount to little more than circumstance, and Canada follows that thought into a meditation on the boundary—tangible, invisible—that divides one kind of person, one kind of life, from another. A bank robber is just ordinary, until all of a sudden he isn’t. Even afterward he may look the same, just like the land on the other side of the 49th parallel, and Ford has never written better than in describing the stumbling way in which Dell’s parents enter into disaster, evoking “the remnants of who they almost succeeded in being…before becoming themselves.”
With her arrest imminent, Dell’s mother arranges for her children to be given shelter by an acquaintance across the border; it’s the only way she has to keep from the state orphanage. But Berner runs away instead, and will live in that wreckage always, a casualty, a victim. The more trusting boy does not, and he will in a sense be saved by Canada itself, a country that’s not so much a real place here as it is an idea. He goes forward with a kind of wide-eyed caution: a temperament, Ford suggests, that fits his new homeland, and that will allow him to make a life. Not an innocent one. The place he finds is as bare and raw as anything to the south, with “the hot wind gusting and dusty and dotted with snapping grasshoppers,” and the events of his first months there prove worse than anything he knew in Great Falls. Dell expects the older people he meets to be grown-ups, to offer him some mark of stability, and they will always disappoint him. He will have to make his own order—and every line of his tale suggests not only that he has, but also how much his ever-growing wariness will cost him.
The novel isn’t perfect, and the bit of back-story that Ford uses to move the book toward its climax seems mishandled, a MacGuffin that’s too busy for its own good. But no matter; plot has never been what his work is really about. Canada is Richard Ford’s best book since Independence Day, and despite its robbery and killings it too depends on its voice, a voice oddly calm and marked by the spare grandeur of its landscape.