Richard Ford's Canada a Quiet Masterpiece

CANADA (2012)
By Richard Ford
Ecco 97800611692048
* * * *

In chaos theory, the “butterfly effect” is a series of nonlinear occurrences set off by an initial action that would be, by most measures, benign and inconsequential, as in the flapping of a butterfly’s wings that begins a chain of events that end with a devastating hurricane. Richard Ford’s latest novel, Canada is such a book. It takes one decision made by one person and looks at the cyclonic and haphazard consequences that occur in three other lives.

Official history holds that the 1950s were an American golden age in which economic opportunities abounded for World War II vets and the families they started. That story is equal parts true and mythic, though Beverly Parsons buys into the PR behind the American Dream hook, line, and sinker. He’s a man’s man, despite his feminine name–an undereducated lad whose wartime fighter pilot heroism was destined to be his only brush with greatness. He’s a likable lout whom everyone likes, though they quickly tire of him once they see there isn’t much lurking beneath the surface. His charm, though, was good enough to woe and wed the birdlike Neeva, a smart, artistic, and sensitive woman. Let’s just call it an unlikely match on all levels, including the fact that she’s under 5 feet and Bev is a hulk, she’s Jewish and he’s not, and Neeva is temperamentally unsuited for motherhood, though she births twins Dell and Berner shortly after Bev is demobilized.

The butterfly effect begins in 1956, when Dell impulsively chucks his Air Force career to prospect for some of that 1950s economic gold. Four years later the Parsons family is eking out a precarious living in Great Falls, Montana, and most of the family income comes from that oldest of Old West activities: cattle rustling. When Bev gets in over his head, he just as impulsively ropes Neeva into a scheme that’s just as bad as his previous ones. What do a pair of barely adolescents do when their parents are in jail? Unleash the butterfly effect. Dell’s sister, Berner, runs away to avoid falling into the clutches of juvenile authorities and we know about the social upheaval looming on the 1960s horizon. Dell, however, stays behind awaiting instructions from a woman his mother told him to trust.

Canada is Dell’s story and he is our 60-year-old omniscient narrator telling his tale from back to front and back again. As the book’s title suggests, Dell makes his way to Canada, but a part so remote that it makes Great Falls seem like New York City. He ends up under the laissez-faire care of Arthur Reminger in the middle of the big sky wheat belt some 500 miles north of Winnipeg. Reminger is also an ex-pat Yank–think a dust-covered Jay Gatsby. Reminger is a dandy who quotes philosophers, but says nothing of himself. He runs a seedy hotel, a whorehouse, and a hunting business; he also harbors a secret or two (or three). Dell’s only constant companion is a Métis man who might or might not be a cross-dresser. That’s unclear, because this and the mystery Dell reveals are related in the non-judgmental voice of the immature boy he was at the time. Dell also takes us forward in time to discuss the varying paths of his and Berner’s lives–all events of which were set in motion by Bev’s decisions. These too are told in a laconic matter-of-fact way.

Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 novel Independence Day, has established himself as a major force in American literature. He has done it through a decidedly old-fashioned way: with language. Things happen in Canada, but it is not a plot-driven book. Dell’s voice is mostly descriptive and detached, dialogue is sparse, and the things Dell dwells upon are often small details rather than cataclysmic events. Dell, in fact, is something of a fatalist–he longs for things to work out well, but he is more of a leaf on the stream than an engineer seeking to reroute the water’s course. Canada and the lives therein are expansive in the same way that the Saskatchewan wheat fields are expansive. There is a surface sameness, but how well the endless fields of grain and those who live among ripen depends on outside forces–sometimes sunny, sometimes stormy. And, like the butterfly effect, it is often the smallest of things that precipitate the most dramatic results. Canada is a poignant story masterfully told with words that whisper across the pages. --Rob Weir

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