WSwan LBC – Canada – Richard Ford

LBC White Swan

Date:  Sunday 8th of March 2015
Time:  6:00pm
Address: Swan Street, Leeds





The BLURB (Amazon)

First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

It was more bad instincts and bad luck that lead to Dell Parsons’ parents robbing a bank. They weren’t reckless people, but in an instant, their actions alter fifteen-year-old Dell’s sense of normal life forever.

In the days that follow, he is saved before the authorities think to arrive. Driving across Montana, his life hurtles towards the unknown; a hotel in a deserted town, the violent and enigmatic Arthur Remlinger, and towards Canada itself. But, as Dell discovers, in this new world of secrets and upheaval, he is not the only one whose past lies on the other side of the border.

canada - richard fordThis is a very deceptive book. While the first chapter suggests that the plot is going to be action driven – actions are going to be the point of the story – robbery, murder, fleeing the law – it turns out that this is not the case. This is rather an introspective memory – an account of a very young 15 year old, written some 50 years later. There is much speculation about morality and fate and predestination and when a person becomes a criminal but no meaningful conclusions are drawn.

Our narrator appears reliable, but his account is so detailed that we found that no conclusions could be drawn about any of the characters that weren’t contradicted at a later point. He constantly tells us that he isn’t inward looking. Indeed he spells that out many times across 420 pages. All this time he is analysing every aspect of his memories. I noted that he wasn’t a good observer, just a wordy one.

Structurally – this was a difficult read. The third book encompasses 40 years of the narrators life despite only being 5-10% of the book and flew by. The first two sections covered mere months and dragged out somewhat. The writing was outstanding – at least the majority of us agreed on that – but the pacing was atrocious. (*Note – one person was driven to distraction by the use of the word waked.) NOTHING seemed to happen. Or rather, everything that happened was outlined in the very early chapters. There will be a robbery. They will be caught. He (Dell) will go to Canada and there will be a murder. As a result, the book is an exercise in patience. There is no sense of anticipation, no build up, no atmosphere – rather it’s a case of ticking off the actions previously outlined. If you are wondering whether this became tedious…it surely did!

We noted that the pleathera of descriptions were grim and visceral for the most part. It was a dark world, people were uniformly …well…crap really. One of the book clubbers noted that while reading the story, she kept thinking of other authors that would take the story and use it far more effectively – such as Annie Proulx. Which set us all off. My personal pick would be AS Byatt.

We wondered why anyone did anything in this book and concluded that it was purely to satisfy the plot. The whole story in fact felt to many of us as an exercise in writing. There were a number of strands that in and of themselves might have been interesting but were abandoned and never brought up again as part of the whole. We begin the book being told that everything followed on from the robbery – that nothing could have happened without that preceding it. However, EVERYTHING that happened could have happened independently. Like Oliver Twist. Indeed, it reminded me of the Big Bang Theory breakdown of Indiana Jones (beware – once you see it, you can’t unsee it!).

Throughout the book, there was a huge over-reliance on appearance. Bev constantly pointed out that his wife was foreign looking. The maternal and caring women (Neeva, Mildred and Florence) all wore green at one point or another. His parents didn’t ‘look’ like criminals…but turned out to be and of course that was one of the defining factors in their arrest. Dell constantly misread people, their motivations and the impact of their decisions and he was hugely judgmental about it. Ironically, CQ and Rudy were the most interesting characters – despite being described in the most unappealing terms. Rudy eating that under cooked steak was stomach churning, while CQ was portrayed as near deviant what with Dell afraid to go to the bathroom and noticing that CQ wore makeup…neither of which observations actually led to anything. Ultimately, they were the only ones that really seemed to live in the world as it was, recognise people for who they were and turned out to provide Dell with some much needed honesty and perspective.

We were disappointed regarding the characterisation. The parents were probably best described but were quite stereotypical. The father was pretty and dumb. He really wanted to rob a bank and one day…did. He didn’t kill anyone, even when he considered that he might be better of removing the witnesses because he hadn’t ever visualised that being part of his mental plan. The mother was intellectual and an outsider. We did quite enjoy speculating as to why Neeva had decided to accompany her husband on his criminal endeavors and decided that it was probably to prevent him from bringing Dell along instead. The sister was UGLY and free-spirited and therefore destined for an unhappy ending. (There was a Forrest Gump element that really bothered at least a few of us. If you were like Forrest and followed the rules, went with the flow and had no agency at all – things worked out for you. If you broke free of expectations, left the path outlined for you – things went very poorly for you.) Mildred was a drudge and functioned purely as a plot device. In face, quite a few of us were far more interested in Berner story – particularly after they separated and she went to San Francisco. The letter that she sent him was quite intriguing.

The main protagonist – our narrator – was UTTERLY passive. He didn’t seem capable of making a decision to save his life. He stayed in the house because his mother told his to. He slept with his sister because she had been planning to sleep with Rudy and he had left. He went with Mildred because that was the plan. At least two of us wondered how he had ever married – did Clare propose to him (leading to a beautiful chat about a friend of a friend who moved into her fella’s apartment gradually – without ever having a conversation about it). While he is ostensibly 15 years of age during the bulk of the book – he seemed much younger than that to us. His naivety might have been due to his isolation – enforced by his parents, but we weren’t convinced by it.

I couldn’t understand *why* the book was called Canada. It could have been called The Robbery, The Escape, Life without Parents. Fortunately, one of us had read an article where the author answered that very question. It was because he’d always wanted to write a book called Canada. *heads desk*

Having said all that, many of us would seek out another one of his books to read – the writing was that good, it made up for the galacial pace. Perhaps this, like Suttree was the author at his most introspective.

Regardless of the plot, we had a fantastic discussion – which always endears a book to me!


5 out of 10

For further details, please email me at or tweet me @LeedsBookClub

The Pub can be contacted on @WhiteSwanLeeds

And feel free to let us know your thoughts using #LBCWSwan!


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