The Modest Proposal

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Canada Review by James M. Welsh Richard Ford
New York: Ecco, 2012
$27.99/Hardcover

Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada (2012), is a marvel of construction, consisting of two loosely related parts punctuated by unexpected violent action (though nothing in the fiction of Richard Ford is entirely "unexpected," thanks to his canny foreshadowing: his favorite quotation seems to be from John Ruskin: "composition is the arrangement of unequal things"). A third "part" of the novel offers an epilogue in hindsight that attempts to complete the story. Part one tells the story of two twin siblings separated after their parents unexpectedly decide to rob a bank; both siblings leave the town of Great Falls before they can be placed in an orphanage; the sister, a free spirit from the start, goes to San Francisco and becomes a sort of hippie; her brother escapes well-meaning social workers and is taken by a friend of his mother's to live across the border in Canada with a relative of the mother's friend.

Part two of the novel is a coming-of-age story involving the boy, Dell Parsons, who unwittingly becomes involved in a murder plot. But all he really wants is to be educated, as he finally is, in the next province to the east, Manitoba. To me it seems the American Frontier myth is being adapted differently here. Arguably, the prairie provinces of western Canada might well be considered the Canadian frontier at mid-20th century, as the novel adapts the American notion of the Frontier as a place of rejuvenation, a harsh environment in which to prove oneself and to build character under difficult circumstances. Seems to me that pretty well summarizes the second part of the novel, though the boy, Dell, certainly has no choice in the matter.

Dell is the narrator (or at least the novel's focal point: and the novel is essentially his story, told from his perspective, fifty years after the events recounted, which gives him a further perspective to reflect upon meanings he could not have understood as a fifteen-year-old, a typical Fordian fictive trick). Dell knows he is an American, but he learns to think and speak like a Canadian, and the novel forms a wonderful meditation on those differences as he "adapts" to the country where he will be educated, live, teach, and retire. Once Dell has "adapted" to Canadian ways, he can never return spiritually to America. Most of the truly "bad" characters in this novel seem to be American, reacting out of fear and stupidity (Dell's parents, e.g.) or out of paranoia and selfishness (the mysterious ex-pat who rules the roost at the Leonard Hotel in Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, and turns out to be a fugitive from American justice). The Canadians tend to be less impulsive, more restrained, and even, for the most part, more decent. But in fact the overview is not so simplistic.

At any event, Canada seemed to me the best Ford vehicle I had encountered since The Sportswriter. I think I once made Richard Ford a little angry back then by asking him in a radio interview if one would consider him a "regional" writer, my point being that he had "adapted" to so many different locales so well: Arkansas for A Piece of My Heart, New Jersey for The Sportswriter and the Bascombe novels, the mountain west for Great Falls and the short stories. But the voices of his characters sound authentically regional, which seemed to me quite remarkable. And now he has crossed the line internationally, enough to baffle us all. But that's OK, so long as he keeps writing. As my poet-colleague Michael Waters wrote me recently, Ford is "the real deal." And I'm not about to dispute a good poet.

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