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Richard Ford returns to familiar ground in new novel Canada.

By Kees Bakhuijzen - posted Tuesday, 3 July 2012

"First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." The opening lines of Richard Ford's new novel Canada don't leave the reader in the dark about the main events happening in the next 400 plus pages. But what will happen is not the main thing to concern us; it is merely how it happens, and what the ramifications are for the main character, protagonist and storyteller, Dell Parsons. From a 21st century perspective Dell looks back upon the life-changing events that happened in 1956, when he was just 15, and that would change his life forever.

Six years after The Lay of the Land, his third novel in the 'Frank Bascombe' series, Richard Ford returns to the literary forefront with this new novel. The Bascombe novels cemented Ford's literary fame, in his native United States to begin with, but with the rest of the world following closely. The sold out session A conversation with Richard Ford at the Sydney Writers Festival 2007 showed that he also has a large following in Australia. The Sportswriter, published in 1984, was the first of the Bascombe novels, and saw Ford find his definitive voice after his early novels A Piece of my Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1981): male, unsentimental but with a reflective edge that makes his characters touch upon their insecurities and consider their place in life.

The Sportswriterwas heralded by critics and fans alike, and the accolades were echoed when Ford published the second of the Bascombe novels Independence Day in 1995. This novel won him both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, something which hadn't happened before, nor has it happened since.


With the voluminous The Lay of the Land, Ford had exhausted Buncombe's life and there seem to be no plans to bring his most famous literary character back in a new novel. That leaves room to visit other familiar ground, and in Canada Ford returns to Montana, in particular Great Falls. Montana, the mid-western, northern state bordering Canada, was the scene for Ford's superb short story collection Rock Springs (1987) – for me still the best short story collection of the late 20th century - and the short novel Wildlife (1990), a longer accompaniment to Rock Springs. The location is not the only reason Canada reminded me so much of Wildlife; both novels tell the narrator's family story at around the time he was fifteen years old, and in both novels the narrator reflects upon events happening at that stage in his life now that he is a much older man. Both novels also tell of dysfunctionality creeping into family life, but in the end these dysfunctional traits are so much more dramatic and far-reaching in this new novel.

Dell Parsons lives with his father Bev, his mother Neeva and his twin sister Berner. Bev and Neeva's marriage is far from perfect and for years Neeva dreams of leaving her husband and taking the children with her.

Therefore, all that might've happened if she'd never met Bev at a Christmas party, the poems she'd have written and published, the small-college teaching possibilities, the marriage to a young professor, the different children from Berner and me – all that which might've happened to her in a revised life, didn't happen.

Falling pregnant to and eventually marrying mismatch Bev Parsons causes a rift between Neeva and her parents, with whom she will hardly be in touch for the rest of her life.

Bev decides to bring some extra money home by engaging in the sale of beef from stolen cattle with a group of Indians from the Montana countryside. Initially this seems to be going well, with the Indians stealing and slaughtering the cattle and Bev selling the beef after supplying his own family with the cheap meat. But once business starts stalling and Bev can't pay the Indians, the threats begin. It is impressive how Ford manages to add a subtle layer of suspense that builds gradually but is palpable on every page. Bev decides the way out is robbing a bank in a small country town in neighbouring state North Dakota. As with all Bev's decisions, his wife is not happy and reluctant to follow. But her weakness comes to the fore and she doesn't manage to say no – with dramatic consequences.

"Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank", Dell reflects later. The robbery completely disrupts family life. Dell's parents end up in prison and his sister Berner decides to follow her own path. This brings the young boy to the country that gave the novel its title. In the barren land of rural Canada he finally ends up with Arthur Remlinger, single, childless and brother of Mildred Remlinger, a family friend who has been asked by Neeva to take care of the kids and make sure they won't end up in police custody or the orphanage.


His life in Canada brings a new dimension to Dell's life, especially when it becomes clear that American Arthur Remlinger has a dark past that forced him to escape to Canada. This past is still hunting him and will eventually lead to the murders Dell announced at the beginning of the novel. The robbery and the murders, and the way it shakes his world upside down, makes Dell reflect upon the place of truth in life:

It's odd, though, what makes you think about the truth. It's so rarely involved in the events of your life. I quit thinking about the truth for a time then. Its finer points seemed impossible to find among the facts. If there was a hidden design, living almost never shed a light on it.

While he reflects upon his life as an older man, we learn that Dell has managed to find his place and his happiness in his new life in Canada. This may explain why in spite of all its sadness and disrupting events, reading this new magnificent novel by Richard Ford didn't leave me with a sad feeling. Dell's reflections upon life, the simple fact that things could have gone differently if certain people would have taken different decisions, it all left me with a feeling that life is what was given to us – with all its good and bad things - and it's up to us to give a place to events that leave a huge mark but that in the end we couldn't prevent from happening.

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The Brisbane Writers Festival presents Richard Ford in conversation with Steven Lang on 13 July, and on 15 July Richard Ford talks to Artistic Director of Sydney Writers' Festival, Chip Rolley in the City Recital Hall, Sydney.

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About the Author

Kees Bakhuijzen is a Sydney-based freelance business and creative writer, translator, editor and proofreader. His articles have appeared in The Weekend Australian and several Dutch broadsheets. You can contact him by email:

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