Richard Ford is one of America’s leading writers, best known for The Sportswriter (1986). Born in Mississippi, he has a dark sense of life in modern America, but none of his previous novels are as dark as Canada, which, the first sentence tells us, is a story of robbery and murders.
The narrator, Dell Parsons, is a retired professor, looking back on events in 1960 that changed his life. He was then living in rural Montana, with his parents: Bev, from Alabama, recently discharged from the Air Force and unable to find his feet; and Neeva, Bev’s Jewish wife, who has drifted away from her family, immigrants from Poland.
Dell watches events unfold with the unblinking eye of some of the great American child narrators. In its tone, describing shocking happenings in rural, small-town America, in a strangely detached way, the book reaches back to Mark Twain and Harper Lee. It is hard to imagine a less Jewish world than Great Falls, Montana and later the borderlands of western Canada, and yet Neeva’s struggle to belong is typical of a novel about outsiders trying to find an identity in an unwelcoming world.
Dell’s parents somehow never fit in. His mother, in particular, is a complete outsider. Even her “unruly brown hair” is a problem. “My father,” Dell tells us, “jokingly said people where he came from in Alabama called her hair ‘Jew hair’ or ‘immigrant hair’.” This is typical of Ford’s style. Disturbing information constantly told in this quiet, matter-of-fact way.
The novel is in three parts. The first tells the story of Dell’s parents and how they became bank robbers, an unlikely post-war version of Bonnie and Clyde. The second follows Dell after the robbery and is about the promised murders, and the novel concludes with Dell looking back over 50 years.
The theme of Neeva’s Jewishness seems to drift away, like so much else in Canada. Nothing and no one is rooted or feels permanent. Everything is on the move, with nothing to hold it in place.
People, jobs, families, all come and go. It is never clear what holds Dell’s parents together. He is charming but feckless, she is college-educated, a teacher and very private writer, painfully aware that she has ended up in the wrong place. But, Dell/Ford asks us: What would be the right place for her — or, indeed, for anyone in the novel?
Canada itself is more a metaphor than a place. It comes to stand for our ability to change (or not), whether we can escape from our past and whether there is anything fixed or secure in our lives. Curiously, this least Jewish of books by one of America’s least Jewish writers, turns out to confront some of the most fascinating Jewish themes.