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BY: ALEX ASHLOCK
I met the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford recently and he started asking me questions.
Where are you from? Illinois, I said. Chicago? No, downstate. Carbondale? No, Alton, on the river across from St. Louis.
I worked on the railroad in St. Louis, he said, and we used to cross the bridge and go over to Alton. He thought it was exotic.
We talked about the west, the setting for many of his books, including his latest, which also partially set in Canada.
I told him I worked for a small newspaper in Idaho, in the panhandle by Canada. Up by Sandpoint, he wondered? No, not that far north, Wallace, I said. Mining country, he said, remembering how I-90 winds its way through the landscape of western Montana, into Idaho and across to Washington state.
Do you miss the northwest, he asked? No, I said. I miss the Illinois prairie. Then, he said, you have to go to Saskatchewan. The prairie there is glorious.
Saskatchewan is the setting for the second half of “Canada,” Richard Ford’s first novel in six years. The book’s narrator, 15-year-old Dell Parsons, ends up there after his parents make a disastrous decision. They leave Dell and his twin sister Berner behind in their Great Falls, Mont., and drive across the border into North Dakota where they rob a bank. It’s a desperate act that in hindsight of course makes no sense.
“For the most part when normal people rob banks, other than Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, it never makes sense,” Ford said. “You always know whether you recognize it or not you’re going to get caught. You’re not going to make a lot of money. What you’re going to do is go to jail. And that’s what happens to these people.”
The interesting thing about this book is that Dell doesn’t hold that terrible decision against his parents, even though it changes his life forever. So it become a story about the acceptance, or the consequences of loss, that you have a better chance of surviving in life if you can tolerate loss.
“You have to be able to decide what’s more important than what. And in the course of deciding what’s more important than what you become an adult,” Ford said. “At a certain point you just have to say ‘I can dispense with this in favor of that,’ and that for me is what we all do if we succeed in life.”
There’s music in this novel, at least there was for me. So I made a playlist that seems to fit with the book’s themes of fate, family and the American experience. It includes the Byrds version of the old Woody Guthrie song “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “No Mother or Dad,” by Flatt and Scruggs, “The Sailor’s Grave On The Prairie,” by Leo Kottke; and John Fahey’s “The Last Steam Engine Train.”
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren’t strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would’ve thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular—although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
My father, Bev Parsons, was a country boy born in 1923, in Marengo County, Alabama, and came out of high school in 1939, burning to be in the Army Air Corps—the branch that became the Air Force. He went in at Demopolis, trained at Randolph, near San Antonio, wanted to be a fighter pilot, but lacked the aptitude and so learned bombardiering instead. He flew the B–25s, the light-medium Mitchells, that were seeing duty in the Philippines, and later over Osaka, where they rained destruction on the earth—the enemy and undeserving people alike. He was a tall, winning, smiling handsome six footer (he barely fitted into his bombardier’s compartment), with a big square, expectant face and knobby cheekbones and sensuous lips and long, attractive feminine eyelashes. He had shiny white teeth and short black hair he was proud of—as he was of his name. Bev. Captain Bev Parsons. He never conceded that Beverly was a woman’s name in most people’s minds. It grew from Anglo-Saxon roots, he said. “It’s a common name in England. Vivian, Gwen and Shirley are men’s names there. No one confuses them with women.” He was a non-stop talker, was open-minded for a southerner, had nice obliging manners which should’ve taken him far in the Air Force, but didn’t. His wide hazel eyes would dart around any room he was in, finding someone to pay attention to him—my sister and me, ordinarily. He told corny jokes in a southern theatrical style, could do card tricks and magic tricks, could detach his thumb and replace it, make a handkerchief disappear and come back. He could play boogie-woogie piano, sometimes would “talk Dixie” to us and sometimes like Amos ‘n Andy. He had lost some hearing by flying in the Mitchells, and which he was sensitive about. But he looked sharp in his “honest” GI haircut and blue captain’s tunic and generally conveyed a warmth that was genuine and made my twin sister and me love him. It was also probably the reason my mother became attracted to him (though she couldn’t have been more different from him or unsuited to him), and got pregnant from their one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returned airmen, near where he was re-training to learn supply-officer duties at Fort Lewis, in March 1945—when no one needed him to drop bombs anymore. They were married immediately when they found out. Her parents, who lived in Tacoma and were Jewish immigrants from Poland, didn’t approve. My mother’s life changed forever after that—and not for the better.
It’s enough to say that they weren’t made for each other—the only children of Scotch-Irish, Alabama backwoods timber estimators and educated Jewish mathematics teachers from Poznan who’d escaped after 1918, and came to Washington State through Canada. My mother’s parents had also been musicians and popular semi-professional concertizers in Poland, but had become school custodians in Tacoma—of all places. Being Jews meant little to them by then, just an old, exacting, constricted way of life they were happy to put behind them in a land where there apparently were no Jews.
My mother, Neeva Kamper (short for Geneva), was a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly, brown hair, downy vestiges of which ran down her jaw line. She had thick eyebrows and a shiny, thin-skinned forehead under which her veins were visible, and a pale indoor complexion that made her appear fragile—which she wasn’t. My father jokingly said people where he was from in Alabama called her hair “Jew hair,” or else “immigrant hair,” but he liked it and loved her. (She never seemed to pay him much attention). She had small, delicate hands whose nails she kept manicured and shined and was vain about and that she gestured with absently. She owned a skeptical frame of mind, was an intent listener when we talked to her, and had a wit that could turn biting. She wore frameless glasses, read French poetry, often used terms like “couche-marde” or “trou de cul,” which my sister and I didn’t understand. She wrote poems in brown ink bought through the mail, and kept a journal we weren’t permitted to read, and normally had a slightly nose-elevated, astigmatized expression of perplexity—which became true of her, and may always have been true. Before she married my father and quickly had my sister and me she’d graduated at age eighteen from Whitman College in Walla Walla, had worked in a book store, featured herself possibly as a bohemian and a poet, and hoped someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor, married to someone different from who she did marry—conceivably a college professor, which would’ve given her the life she felt she was intended for. She was only thirty-four, in 1960, the year these events occurred. But she already had “serious lines” beside her nose—which was small and pinkish at its tip—and her large, penetrating gray-green eyes had dusky lids that made her seem foreign and slightly sad and dissatisfied—which she was. She possessed a pretty, thin neck, and a sudden, unexpected smile that showed off her small teeth and girlish, heart-shaped mouth, though it was a smile she rarely practiced—except on my sister and me. We realized she was an unusual-looking person—dressed as she typically was in olive-color slacks and baggy-sleeved cotton blouses and hemp-and-cotton shoes she must’ve sent away to the west coast for—since you couldn’t buy such things in Great Falls. And she only seemed more unusual standing reluctantly beside our tall handsome, out-going father. But it was rarely the case that we went “out” as a family, or ate in restaurants, so that we hardly noticed how they appeared in the world, among strangers. To us, life in our house seemed normal.
Copyright (c) Harper Collins.