Author: Richard Ford
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date of Publication: May 22, 2012
Pages: 418 (Hardcover Edition)
I was about to give up on contemporary fiction when along came Richard Ford’s brilliant Canada. Ford, the only author to have won the Pulitzer Prized and the Pen-Faulkner Award for the same novel (Independence Day) has been called “One of his generations most eloquent voices” (“The New York Times”) and “One of the finest curators of the great American living museum” (“The Washington Post Book World”). Canada does nothing to detract from that reputation. Indeed, it enhances it.
This story is told in the first person by Dell Parsons. It is a reflective and melancholy sixty six year old Dell who relates the cataclysmic events which occurred in his family when he was fifteen. Part One of the book is set in Great Falls, Montana and the year is 1960. Dell has a twin sister named Berner and two completely mis-matched parents. Dell and Berner live isolated lives, peculiar children of very peculiar parents. Part Two of the book shifts to Saskatchewan, Canada. Dell tries to reconcile what has happened to disrupt and scatter his family and to try to discover who he is to become. Part Three is brief as the older Dell tries to bring his family story full circle and reconcile his sister’s story with his own.
Ford is truly a master of the writing craft. Sentences are pitch-perfect. His eye for detail is intense and never burdensome. His writing is mesmerizing and never dull. He is able through this attention to scene and detail to bring rural Montana and Canada to life. The author uses hints about coming events, revealing small future plot details as enticements to read on. Ford, in fact, tells the whole plot in the opening two sentences (sixteen total words)! The main characters, particularly Dell’s parents, are complex and compelling in spite of their pedestrian situations. Dell spends a lot of time alone with his thoughts and imagination. He is fascinated with the game of chess, hoping to make his mark in the world by becoming a Grand Champion. He learns the specific duties and expectations of each chess piece and is enthralled by strategies such as attacks, defenses and sacrificial gambits. Ford uses the game throughout Canada as a grand metaphor for life itself. Towards the end of the book Dell goes so far as to say:
“There is much to learn here from the game of chess, whose individual engagements are all part of one long engagement seeking a condition not of adversity or conflict or defeat or even victory, but of the harmony underlying it all.”
This is a book about fate, life’s incongruities, unfairness and disappointments. It is about how we have to react to unforeseen actions and circumstances (much like in the game of chess) and how failure to adapt can be calamitous. The author makes a strong statement about predestination without ever using the term. Even though Canada is far from an action-packed adventure, it is nonetheless an enthralling story which surprises and challenges the reader. It is one of the best written books I have read in quite some time.