A few months ago two e-mail messages from former students alerted me that Richard Ford’s new novel was about to appear. We had begun talking about him 25 years ago, when The Sportswriter, the first in his trilogy about Frank Bascombe, appeared. I was teaching at Loyola University New Orleans at the time. Ford was living there, we had met, and he came and talked with my students about writing. Loyola gave him an honorary degree, and he has stayed in my syllabus whenever I taught fiction at one of the five Jesuit universities where I have worked.
In the six years since his last novel, The Lay of The Land, Ford moved to Maine, while his followers waited impatiently for his next novel to appear. Recently, perhaps as a signal of something new about to emerge, his photo portrait appeared in the New York Times Style Magazine with other famous novelists modeling expensive shirts. Others wore checkers, stripes and spots; Ford, though he had recently been photographed in frontier denim blue, wore a $420 no-nonsense solid black.
Canada, though a break from the Bascombe trilogy—The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006)—as the action shifts from the Jersey Shore to Montana and Saskatchewan, recaptures experiences from Ford’s adolescence. The rootless characters in his stories, like those in Rock Springs and The Ultimate Good Luck, betray their spouses, have scrapes with the law and sometimes kill others or themselves. Ford’s America has been one of broken families, vulnerable youths, crooked businessmen, would-be honest men and women stifled by their environment and good people trying to be good or fighting the odds to be better.
The narrator in Canada is Dell Parsons, 65, a retired high school English teacher who lives in Canada but brings us back in memory to Great Falls, Mont., in 1960, when he was 15. The voice then shifts to Dell as a boy, who introduces his father, Bev, 37, a former World War II Army Air Corps pilot; his mother, Neeva, 34, a nonobservant Jewish school teacher; and his restless twin sister, Berner, anxious to break out of the small town’s smothering embrace.
Dell is not an athlete, but he hungers for high school, where he hopes to learn bee-keeping, because bee hives represent community life, and to become competitive in chess. The chessboard is his map as he tries to strategize the next moves of his life. Meanwhile, from time to time the voice of the elder Dell intrudes to warn the reader that tragedy lurks on the horizon.
Ford has split the story into three sections: Montana, Canada and a brief “where are they now” conclusion. The chapters average three to six pages in length, each covering a few packed months, as the prose sucks us in with the aromas of sawdust and manure and the sounds of “rain slashing the house shingles and spattering inside” and Dell’s adolescent ruminations both naïve and mature as life slaps him around.
The jobless father, Bev, joins a stolen beef racket with local Indians, who will kill him if he fails to repay them for spoiled beef. No money? Go where it is. At the novel’s turning point, Bev and Neeva botch a bank robbery and are sent to jail, leaving their children to be scooped into an orphanage by the civil authorities. But Berner runs off with her boyfriend; and a family friend zips Dell to Canada, where it is expected that through a contact he will find work at a remote, small-town hotel that caters to seasonal goose hunters and perhaps be sent to school by a patron.
For four months Dell slaughters geese, supervised by Charley Quarters, a bizarre, dwarfish character who wears lipstick and who Dell suspects is a pervert, and by the hotel owner, the strange, handsome and blond Arthur Reminger, an American expatriate. The boss keeps a gun in his room and after a while shows interest in the boy, whom he enlists in a mysterious scheme. It appears that, like Dell’s true parents, he is being pursued by American police.
In Ford’s world religion lurks in the background, though his characters are not “religious.” The action takes place in the context of feasts and holidays— Thanksgiving, Christmas, Holy Week, Easter and the Fourth of July—rituals with moral lessons. In The Sportswriter, Bascombe regrets that his divorced wife does not take their children to church—not because they will turn out godless but because “Easter will soon seem like nothing more than a lurid folk custom, one they’ll forget before they’re past puberty.” In Canada, the intellectually starved Dell bikes for miles to a Catholic school for wayward girls, not knowing what a “wayward girl” is, because he thinks the school might let him take courses. He arrives at an old mansion locked behind a gate and tries to address some girls through the fence. A young nun imagines the worst and chases him away, never guessing that this is a lonely boy yearning for meaning in his life.
Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. His father was a traveling salesman and his mother’s father ran a hotel in Little Rock, Ark. When Richard was 16, his father died suddenly in bed. When Richard had some scrapes with the law, his mother warned him to stay out of jail because she would not be able get him out. Later he accidentally found his mother with another man. The seeds of his stories and novels were taking root. In one story the young narrator wonders whether there is some “coldness in us all” that makes us “no more or less than the animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving and without patience or desire.”
In Canada the boy’s whole family, through the stupidity of his basically good parents, who have not divorced, is snatched away from him within a few days. Compassion is the basis of all the other virtues, the one that allows us to enter into the feelings of others and to forgive and love them. Without labeling the emotions involved, Ford has created an extraordinary, compassionate young man who loves his parents and sister no matter what. But with Canada as his new chessboard and a new frontier to form his character, he struggles to foresee how the other pieces on the board will move and how he will react to save his life and soul.
The narrator telegraphs that there will be gun shots, a murder and suicide, but he has survived and found peace. And we are blessed with Richard Ford’s greatest book.