We’ll be devoting occasional Mondays to Canada literature. That’s not always Canadian literature–written by a Canadian–eg. this first book, but every one will have a strong sense of place and culture that should enhance your travel experience. Unfortunately for us, of the most well-known Canadian authors, many do not write about Canada, so they don’t really fit into A Traveler’s Library.
Book: Canada (hard back 2012, paperback 2913) by Richard Ford
What a dynamite first line launches the novel, Canada:
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.
Richard Ford‘s style of writing, deceptively simple, does not play games with the reader. He lays out the action and the thoughts of the main character in detail, and with the circular repetition that happens in our own minds. The grown up man (looking back on his 15-year-old self) who narrates the book, goes on after those first two sentences, to specifically state the theme of the book.
The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the coures they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
The book, although looking back, reflects the young boy who is searching for some meaning in a world that has thrown some random events his way. This is a boy who spends long hours contemplating how he should act, what the puzzling actions and words of adults actually mean, and to what extent he has choices about his fate. He says, “That was what life mostly was to me–events that went on in my brain.”
The first half of the book takes place in a small town in Montana. After the robbery, his twin sister Berner runs away, and the boy, Dell, is driven to Saskatchewan, Canada to take refuge with an American who is a fugitive from U.S. justice. One of the things that Pulitzer winner Richard Ford (for Independence Day, reviewed here) explores in the novel, Canada, is the way that Americans think of Canadians and vice-versa. I found the differences in perception fascinating. A woman who befriends Dell in Saskatchewan explains the differences as she sees them, besides the fact that Thanksgiving falls on a different day. Canada had joined World War II before the United states,
…due to Canada’s obedience to the Queen of England, and in fact had an air force as good as ours. She said Canada wasn’t an old country like ours and still had a pioneer feel and nobody there really thought of it as a country….She said Canada also 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.
In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Ford says that a main motivation for writing the book was to try to portray the landscape of Saskatchewan, which had made a great impression on him. (That video interview linked here is preceded by an interminable commercial which you can’t turn off, but bear with it because you can learn a lot about Richard Ford once the actual interview starts.) Naturally, the fact that the author was so influenced by PLACE impressed me and made this book a natural for our Canada series, even though Ford is an American rather than a Canadian writer.
One of the things I enjoy about Ford’s writing is his way of sketching a character so that you immediately get a sense of the person. Speaking of his father, Dell says,
Our father wasn’t a man accustomed to being threatened. He was accustomed to getting along well with people, amusing them, being admired for his looks, his nice manners, his southern accent, and for his valiant bombardier’s service in the war. Being threatened with murder exerted a big impact on him.
This excerpt shows Ford’s way with description, but also the understated humor that floats through the novel. The boy, puzzles over what made his parents, who he never stops loving, rob a bank. How could such ordinary people do such an un-ordinary thing. And should he have seen it coming? Part of his disillusionment comes when Mildred, the woman who is driving him to Saskatchewan says,
“There are two different kinds of people in the world,” Mildred said, “Well, really, there’re lots of kinds. But at least two are the people who understand you don’t ever know; then they’re the ones who think you always do. I’m in the former group. It’s safer.”
Mildred had told me I was not to think bad of myself, since what had happened had been through no fault of mine. Florence had told me our lives were passed on to us empty and our task was to make up being happy.
Dell is asked if he would change his name, and he says ‘no’…”wanting to cling to who I was and what I knew about myself when those points were in dispute.” Because of his life in a run-down shack and then a dubious hotel in small town Saskatchewan, he learns that instead of being predictable and controllable, in life “anything at all can follow anything at all.” He is taught by the twisted American fugitive from law and the unpredictable Métis Indian as he learns about duck hunting and other grown-up pursuits.
As an adult, he teaches literature and lists books that he assigns to young people because he thinks they apply to his younger self– The Great Gatsby, The Nick Adams Stories and more. In a passage that is self-referential, when asked by students if he changed his name when he moved from America to Canada, he again says no:
Impersonation and deception, I tell them, are the great themes of American literature. But in Canada not so much.
Richard Ford’s novel, Canada, despite the fact that it contains the promised bank robbery and murders, does not provide a lot of action and excitement. Instead it is a meditation on crossing borders, as Ford says in his WSJ interview, moral borders, geographical borders. And the book provides a evocative picture of both a small western U.S. town and the Province of Saskatchewan in Canada. For a tourist view, see the Saskatchewan web site.
Check out my earlier list of Canada literature to see what provinces we’ve already covered at A Traveler’s Library, and some places where you can discover Canada literature (and Canadian literature). I would particularly like to call your attention to 49th Shelf, recommended by Monique. That website is right down our alley, since it even includes a map of Canada with books pinned on their locations. Monique, herself, reviews Canadian literature at So Misguided, a Canadian book blog. I have also added some books that Richard Ford found helpful in writing his novel set in Saskatchewan.
Note: The photos used here are from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license. You can learn more and see more by the photographers by clicking on each picture. The book cover links to Amazon.com because I am an Amazon affiliate. Although it costs you no more, when you shop Amazon through those links, you help support A Traveler’s Library. THANKS!