The West has never been so simultaneously desolate and menacing as it appears in Richard Ford’s seventh novel, as backdrop for and co-conspirator to a life-changing crime. Dell Parsons, the old man taking stock in Canada, strains against an image of himself as the victim of circumstances while seeking to assign responsibility for the destruction of his family in this intense decade-spanning saga.
As an old man, Dell uses newspaper clippings and a diary to reconstruct the circumstances through which his parents, Bev and Neeva, robbed a bank and were almost immediately caught, effectively orphaning him and his twin sister Berner in their small Montana town. Fueled by an unknown confidence, Bev, a retired Air Force enlistee, takes few precautions in planning the robbery. He doesn’t even hide his face from the tellers. But his son is cut from more tentative cloth: Dell, obsessing over how to fit in at his new high school, realizes his parents’ arrest will set him apart from the other students. Their crimes still cast a shadow over his adult life. His desperate craving for assimilation is further thwarted as he’s is shipped off to Canada by a friend of his mother’s and put to work in a decrepit hotel popular with hunters, whose employees assume he’s also running from a criminal past.
What Dell shares with Ford’s most famous creation, Frank Bascombe (from The Sportswriter and other novels), is the ever-shifting awareness of his own perspective and consciousness of the unknowability of other people’s experiences. But often, the other he’s addressing is himself: The tension between Dell at 15, not comprehending the abrupt shift in his family life, and his adult self’s attempts to address his parents’ fears and motives pulls Canada through the starts and stops of his life in the wake of the crime. The immediacy of that interpretation is broken only once in Dell’s account, in the days following the arrest, when he and Berner float confusedly around their house, unsure whether to pack their things or prepare meals and go to sleep as if their parents were still there.
Dell’s outsized level of compassion for his wayward folks is contextualized by the distance between their crime and their son’s placid life as an English teacher on the cusp of retirement half a continent away. Still, examining the robbery as his father’s ultimate marker of fulfillment leads Dell to question whether his life has been well-lived in the shadow of that great mistake. The gulf between recognition and forgiveness opens between them. Ford layers that counter-story like rock underneath Dell’s observations, coloring the meanings he draws from his years of hiding in plain sight, an American outsider and a lost child for whom no one is looking. Canada is a survivor’s story. Each sentence is an acceptance of the turns Dell has taken since the day Bev Parsons left the house with his gun. It’s a chronicle of how to live, constructed around the opposite choice.