A Haunting Coming of Age Tale


Canada by Richard Ford

“First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

I had the privilege of hearing a lecture from Richard Ford sometime in the fall of 2014. He was a guest of the NC Literary Festival hosted at North Carolina State University. The NC Literary Festival occurs each year and is shared between three major universities in the Triangle region: Duke University in Durham, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Ford is a distinguished looking man in his seventies with an impressive writing resume behind him. His graying hair and pale blue eyes betray his warmth and intelligence and on that particular day he wore pink socks (which I complimented him on). In his lecture, he spoke of his childhood and life growing up in Mississippi with his parents and the influences of his writing. As he spoke, he came across to the audience as endearing and funny and you really felt as if you could listen to him speak for hours.

But Ford’s career (and life) is not in lecturing. It is in writing. And it is in his writing that we can celebrate his insightful wisdom and linguistic creativity and treasure him as a rare and gifted writer still working today. Copies of his novels were, of course, available for sale after his lecture and, while never having read anything by Ford, I purchased a copy of Canada. It was his newest novel at the time and one that was on my reading list for a while. Once I began to read the novel I knew then that I was in the hands of an observant, subtle and masterful writer.

Canada is the tale of fifteen year old Dell Parsons, our protagonist in a story hinged on the long and complex history of American crime and violence. Set in the 1960’s in Great Falls, Montana, Dell’s parents, out of financial desperation (and some kind of haphazard attempt to redeem themselves) make the fateful decision to rob a bank. When their plan ultimately fails and they are taken in by the authorities, Dell and his sister, Berner, suddenly find themselves abandoned and alone. Then Berner takes off for California while Dell is smuggled across the border into Canada by a close friend of his mother.

It is there in Canada that Dell is left in the care of the enigmatic Arthur Remlinger, a man who desperately tries to hide a dark and violent past. While adjusting to the strange people around him and his lukewarm living arrangements, Dell wonders at his uncertain future and explores what it means to call someplace “home.” But as Dell struggles to come to terms with the impact of his parent’s mistake and imprisonment, the mysterious Remlinger hurtles them both towards a disastrous collision with the law and murder.

Canada is a richly layered novel that illustrates Ford’s skillful and natural gift of observation with a lyrical prose infrequently matched by other writers today. Ford’s mastery of language is what commands your attention. While his writing here is deliberately slow and measured (and it seems as if Ford could have written this story without end) he deftly probes the effects of the crime on Dell and how it shapes his view of the world while touching on themes of adolescence, violence and self-discovery. Canada is a startling coming-of-age tale that’s a must read, especially during the bitter cold winter months. It is at once dark, funny, observant and altogether wonderful. A haunting, beautifully written piece of literature.