Canada. This much raved about and also much panned novel is the most recent from Pulitzer Prize winner Ford. Though I try to avoid reviews, I hadn't been able to avoid influence before going into Canada. Therefore I was fully expecting to only make it in a few pages. However, I read the whole thing in just a few days.
The premise is this: Teenage twins Dell and Berner Parsons are Air Force kids who have lived all over the country and finally seem to be settling with their parents in Great Falls, Montana. Things are going moderately well - relatively speaking. Their father is a slightly disgraced, but still officially honorably discharged Air Force man. Their mother is Jewish and looks it and therefore is always seen as an outsider. But both seem to be good parents. Berner is a cranky teen on the cusp of adulthood with a new ex-Mormon boyfriend and Dell, the less mature twin is into chess and bees. (This is not to say chess or bees are things immature kids gravitate to, however. It mostly means he's kind of a nerdy kid.) He is our narrator.
Then, after a series of stupid choices, their parents make the ultimate stupid choice: they rob a bank. Immediately following that, there is a period of life that vaguely resembles life-going-on-as-usual and then the parents are arrested. The children are left behind, forgotten by the authorities. Berner runs off to San Francisco and Dell is spirited away to Canada to stay with a friend of a family friend. There he struggles with fitting in, not fitting in, and navigating the new characters he encounters as well as his own. Then there is a murder. Now, don't worry. I haven't given anything away. It's right there on page 1; there will be the robbing of a bank and a murder.
That was one thing I didn't love in this book. The precognition we have of what will happen. I don't mind knowing ahead of time. The suspense is great. But, the constant reminders felt like Ford didn't trust his readers to remember. While I appreciated the suspense, when the actions actually occur, they are mild and frankly, kind of boring. The suspense though, is key to this novel. We know what will happen. We know the police will come after the robbery. We just wait for it. This is probably the crux of the success of this book.
The story opens with First I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders. . .You expect it to be fast paced and exciting from there! But you would be wrong. It takes a more meandering approach, relying on the suspense of that first statement, and of course, constantly reminding you of it.
Ford also feels the need to state the obvious. Berner said we should take some of the cheese and go down to the river and feed the ducks and geese, which was something we did. Do we need "which was something we did" in there? Ford employs this a lot throughout the book and I found it distracting and unnecessary.
Most interesting is that Dell is what's known as a passive protagonist. And usually a passive protagonist does not make for good reading. Dell just goes with the flow. Never going after his own desires and never creating his own circumstances, let alone his own world. I think this might be the biggest issue most critics found with this novel. And it bothered me some, but was something I didn't fully realize until I was finished with the book. But let me say this, Dell is still a rich character with a voice all his own. His naivete and passivity seems more realistic to the way a fifteen would act in this situation. However, sometimes this can hinder fiction.
Despite these few issues I had, with Ford's more-or-less straightforward writing, unique characters, and strong sense of time and place (both in Montana and the similar Saskatchewan prairie and the tumultuous world of 1960), I still found myself engaged in this book. Would I recommend it? Probably not. Unless you were trying to find reading up on How to Be an Outsider. But I wouldn't steer you away either.