Canada is a meditation. Like life on the 49th parallel, it is at times bleak but also majestic in scope. It is a story of youth represented by summer below the 49th parallel in Great Falls, Montana and growth represented by winter above the 49th parallel in Alberta.
As the story opens we are told from the beginning that Dell Parson’s parents have committed a bank robbery, been jailed, his mother has committed suicide and he and his sister have been left to fend mostly for themselves to find their way in the world without help from their parents.
The Parson’s are an Air Force family. Their father, a debonair southern charmer, is a Captain in the USAF. Their mother, the daughter of Polish immigrants raised in Tacoma, Washington is everything their father is not – dark, dour and reserved. Their one commonality is the love they have for their daughter Berner and their son Dell. Ultimately, due to the character weaknesses in both parents and their inability to support their family, a bank robbery is committed. From the planning or lack of, until the act itself, we know that this endeavor has no chance of succeeding.
The story before the robbery unfolds in the setting of Great Falls, Montana in 1960. It is an examination of small town life; what it means to be an American and the role of the white man and his relationships in shaping the plight of the Native American’s in the region. It has a triangle of race relations between a corrupt African American Pullman porter, local Native American cattle rustlers and Capt. Parson’s running a meat scam that carried over from his time in the USAF.
The story after the robbery speaks briefly to the fall out and dissolution of the family but more importantly focuses on Dell. His twin sister Berner leaves to start her own life and it is not until the very end of the book that we discover what road she traveled and where she ended up. We do know that she is headed to San Francisco in an attempt to reunite with a boyfriend she had in Great Falls.
Dell is taken to Canada. This occurs because of an arrangement Dell’s mother makes with an acquaintance. Once there, Dell is more or less provided with a job, very rudimentary accommodations and left to fend for himself. Throughout the book Dell’s interest in chess is almost an allegory of how to survive in life. Sacrifices have to be made in order to succeed and like chess, the game of life cannot be rushed or fast forwarded in order to achieve the end game.
This is not a book for readers who need action in order to hold their interest. The story is told in some detail through the eyes of a fifteen year old boy. It includes all the missed cues and misunderstandings of youth and the slow realizations of what is happening as a child is forced to grow up quickly. In that sense, the book is very much a meditation. It is somewhat poetic and the beauty is in the stark detail.
This is the first book that I have read by Richard Ford but from other things I have read about this author this slow, melodic, poetic way of storytelling is a signature of Ford’s. If you can allow yourself to take the time and appreciate the slow pace of this book, you will definitely enjoy it. I did and I look forward to reading other works by this author.