Richard Ford once shot a book by a woman who’d given him a bad review. It wasn’t a terrible review — it had its qualifications, even its moments of high praise — but that didn’t stop Ford from mailing Alice Hoffman her own ventilated work as a sort of underworld warning. When Colson Whitehead demolished Ford’s story collection, A Multitude of Sins, in the pages of The New York Times, Ford decided not to do anything rash. Instead, he waited two years for the chance to see Whitehead in person. Then he spat on him. Whitehead took this in stride: “I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”
Good one. Yet, given that Whitehead had already enjoyed his pen-is-mightier moment in the review itself, one can’t help an atavistic wish that he’d simply punched Ford’s lights out. There’s a point at which being the bigger man is as much a reflex as putting up one’s dukes. And it is precisely Ford’s willingness to be the smaller man — to indulge crazy impulses, to embarrass himself — that qualifies him to write a book like Canada, which is largely about how a single moment of weakness or folly can hurl one into unfamiliar country, with no hope of returning home. Fans of Ford’s excellent Bascombe trilogy know his flair for human frailty, human perplexity, but in Canada Ford mingles with a far lower class of men.
Canada might as well be a deliberate rejoinder to Whitehead’s review, which alleged that Ford was preoccupied with the tedious affairs and “lukewarm lust” of white upper-middle-class professionals. Canada‘s hero is a child in Montana, a boy named Dell Parsons whose life is ruined by his parents’ decision to rob a North Dakota bank. Bev and Neeva Parsons, an affable, fatally optimistic southerner and his more circumspect Jewish wife, are no Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. They aren’t driven by a lust for adventure, nor are they even very much in love. (Their union is more or less the fault of getting pregnant with twins, Dell and his sister, Berner, during “one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returning airmen” in 1945.) Only Bev is even properly a criminal; it is his ill-advised scheme, involving Indians and trafficking in stolen cattle, that lands the family in trouble with the wrong sort of people. Desperate times lead to where they always do.
We know from page one that the robbery will occur, but Ford takes his time getting there. Along the way, one develops a sense that fiction writers — Ford, at least — might make the best criminals. Ford’s elegant description of what goes wrong, a perfect inversion of what Bev and Neeva expect to go right, is summed up by Dell’s pitch-black comic insight: “My parents simply did not understand life in small prairie towns, where everyone notices everything…. As it turned out, my father wasn’t all that memorable to anyone in Creekmore — until it was time to testify against him, when he became very memorable.” This passage, and the list of missteps that precedes it, and the pages of snowballing panic and recklessness preceding that, suggest that Ford might enjoy a second career as a noir screenwriter.
But Canada is not a crime novel. Ford’s meticulous construction of the Parsonses’ brief and undistinguished criminal career is impressive, but only half the story. What becomes of Dell, his parents having been carted off and his sister having run away, is alluded to in the title: He must cross a border. The life he desired, the one he was on the cusp of having — school, chess, beekeeping — is behind him forever. Once Dell is smuggled by Mildred, a family friend, to Saskatchewan, where he becomes the charge of her bachelor brother, the novel takes on an almost numinous life of its own. In Ford’s telling, our northern neighbor is an uncanny hinterland, similar to America in trivial ways but forbiddingly different in others
[Mildred] said Canada had dollars for money, but theirs were different colored and was sometimes mysteriously worth more than ours. She said Canada had its own Indians and treated them better than we treated ours, and Canada was bigger than America, though it was mostly empty and inhospitable and covered with ice much of the time.
I rode along thinking about these things and how they could become true just by passing two huts marooned in the middle of nowhere.
Beyond this point of entry — from which there can be no return, lest Dell become property of the State of Montana — lies an experience that places Canada squarely in the line of Oliver Twist and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dell’s keeper, Arthur Remlinger, a dapper and mysterious hotelier, and Charley Quarters, his man Friday, are Ford’s answer to Fagin and Sykes, to the Duke and the Dauphin. (The use to which they put Dell is unexpected and better left unsaid.) Ford has achieved something here that few authors can carry off — and, frankly, that nothing in his Bascombe books suggested an ability to do. He has written a book for adults from which any brave and curious child could derive a vast, if necessarily partial, benefit. This is a better thing, to be sure, than what we tend to get today: books for children from which adults imagine themselves to derive some nourishment.
That it might serve as YA literature the way books by Dickens or Twain do is not the main value of Canada, merely a measure of its quality. The cruel and immutable realities it unveils for poor Dell — that life turns on a dime; that people (even our parents) may not be what they seem or what we wish them to be; that we should be prepared for the unfamiliar — are our common lot. They should be learned early, and, sad to say, revisited often.