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FIELD NOTES: Richard Ford

southern literature

Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.

The Wide World of Southern Literature:

Canada by Richard Ford

(Ecco, 2012)

Canada is Richard Ford’s first novel in six years; his most famous books, of course, are The Sportswriter and the PEN/Faulkner- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day from the Frank Bascombe trilogy. Ford spoke at DePauw University while I was a student there and said, when asked, that he didn’t really think of himself as a Southern writer. That’s fair. He’s lived in California, Michigan, New Jersey, and Maine, and has since taught in Ireland. But now, he’s back in the state of his youth—Mississippi—and something of that place (this place, the South) has seeped into Canada, in spite of its title.

southern literature richard ford canada

Canada is a novel in three parts, a “composition,” or an arrangement of unequal things, as narrator Dell Parson’s mother once explained to him, and this way of looking at the world in sides existing simultaneously is a thread that balances the parts. The first part revolves around Dell’s childhood and family life; the second follows him after he crosses the northern U.S. border and establishes himself in Canada; and the third addresses him as he is—in his sixties, discussing the direction that his life has taken and how the childhood experiences recollected in Parts I and II have (or have not) influenced his adult life.

At fifteen, Dell lived in a small house in Great Falls, Montana, with his ex-Army, Dixie-talking father, serious, schoolteacher mother, and ornery twin sister, Berner. He studied library books on beekeeping and chess strategies. He read World Book encyclopedias and had goals: to join the chess club, to observe beekeeping demonstrations at the State Fair, and to convince his parents to allow him to keep hives in the backyard. He had plans to make good grades and attend college.

But the summer before Dell enters high school, his parents rob a bank. His father hinted that bank-robbing was a particular dream of his, but this is not the sort of behavior anyone would expect from his or her parents, Dell least of all. His mother wrote poetry. She wore glasses and greenish wool pantsuits to school, was quiet and melancholy and a good listener; she understood music and literature and had gone to college.

His father was a Democrat who told jokes and went to the movies with his kids. Respected his wife. Sold cars. Was optimistic. He had been “honorably” discharged from the military (though this turns out to be a stretch—he was actually implicated in a scheme to provide the base with stolen beef).

From Dell’s point of view his existence was not recognizably miserable, and looking back, he struggles to make sense of the signs he missed:

It’s best to see our life and the activities that ended it, as two sides of one thing that have to be held in the mind simultaneously to properly understand—the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous. One so close to the other. Any different way of looking at our life threatens to disparage the crucial, rational, common-place part we lived, the part in which everything makes sense to those on the inside.

A few days after the robbery, Dell’s parents are taken away in handcuffs. Before authorities come to remove the children, Dell’s twin sister runs away to California and a family friend spirits Dell across the Canadian border to live with her brother, Arthur Remlinger. Remlinger is a Harvard-educated, dandy who relocated to Canada to run a seedy men’s resort, after setting off a bomb in Detroit years earlier. Once in Canada, Dell moves into an abandoned trailer in a ghost town a few miles from the Remlinger hotel. During the day, he works at the hotel, where he scrubs rooms frequented by hunters, gamblers, and the prostitutes who are procured for them.

Walking around the decrepit buildings that take up space near his trailer, Dell imagines the lives that played out in the shoe store (shoes still scattered inside), the littered beauty parlor with broken hair dryers and brick-smashed furnishing, the empty pool hall, the gas station with rusted, glass-top pumps, and decides that he is “assimilating,” a concept his mother abhorred. But to Dell, it is freeing: “I could like it or hate it, but the world would change around me no matter what.”

He’s a hard worker and things do change: He starts leading the hunters who frequent the resort out to shoot geese. Remlinger seems to trust Dell and begins to engage him in discussion, but just as the boy is getting used to this new world where he matters to a person he admires and thinks his Canadian life is normal, he also starts to understand that Remlinger may not really care about him as anything other than a pawn.

Despite the synoptic implication that a fast-paced thriller has been whittled out around shocking events punctuating a lonely, “ruined” childhood, Dell refuses to be defined by them or to characterize them as character building or breaking.

In Dell’s memory, the events of his youth were permeated with tension and void of adventure, and Dell narrates his history without fanfare or excitement. He is not interested in being the one to rework the scraps of his childhood into anything more glamorous than what it was. “Most things don’t stay the way they are very long,” he muses. “Knowing this, however, has not made me cynical. Cynical means that good is not possible; and I know for a fact that good is. I simply take nothing for granted and try to be ready for the change that’s soon to come.”

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