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Canada - Richard Ford This novel progresses smoothly, although slowly at first, with the skilled hand of Mr. Ford. Even when, sometimes, the actual point of the story is lost in the extraneous and often superfluous details that are offered, the reader will be consistently drawn back to the tale by this gifted storyteller. The author sharply, and alternately, subtly, represents the conflicting philosophies, circumstances and prejudices of the times with clarity and openness. The tale spans approximately 66 years, from 1945-2011, and is told simply in a prose that is easy on the eyes.
The narrator is Dell Parsons, ½ of a set of twins born to Neeva and Bev Parsons in 1945. The other ½ of the set is Dell’s sister, Berner. As children growing up, they were very close. When they are 15, their parents decide to rob a bank because of their flawed perception of the situation facing them. This unwise act changes everyone’s lives forever, and the consequences are far reaching.
The prelude up to the bank robbery is fully half of the book and it will be too long and tedious for some readers, however, I recommend that the reader stick to it because even though there is so much background information and too much foreshadowing which leaves little to the imagination, as if the narrator thinks you are already aware of the story and is just filling in the spaces for you, explaining the circumstances more fully, he is truly creating a narrative that is compelling and thought provoking.
Geneva (Neeva) and Beverly Parsons met in 1945, Bev was a soldier. On that fateful night, they lost their heads, and as luck would have it, Neeva became pregnant. Bev did what he thought was the right thing and married her. Sadly, he had a skewed moral sense in other ways, however, and he blurred the lines between legal and illegal behavior. Neeva’s character was guilty of being weak and immature. This author develops each character fully and the mind’s eye of the reader will be able to see them as they are, even if they don’t believe them to be real examples, but more as caricatures, of that era, as they are portrayed.
The parents were surely mismatched, brought together due to capricious circumstances. Both were from different backgrounds; she was a non-practicing Jew, and he, a Southern Baptist. Both had different dreams. Still, they believed that they did the best they could with the cards dealt to them, which is a common theme in the story. Their problem really wasn’t that they married too young or that they got caught for one mistake, but rather that they were woefully unprepared for the task before them.
Dell’s sister is sarcastic rebellious and occasionally mean to him. She is a bit more mature and is very much more impetuous than he is, especially socially and sexually. He is more scholarly, wants to raise bees and hopes to go on to college someday. In some ways, the bees represent orderliness and his desire for control over his life. When his dream of raising bees dies, so does his control over his life. For a period of time, he is at the mercy of others and is often used or betrayed by adults who should know better.
It is 1960 and Bev Parsons is developing a scheme to sell beef illegally. When it fails, his business partners want their money and threaten him with serious repercussions. This leads to their foolish bank robbery and their ultimate prison sentence. It also leads to the abandonment of Berner and Dell since the system forgets about them for a time, forcing them to find their own way and choose their path in life, however inappropriately. Forgotten by the system, shamed by the townspeople, sibling and parent alike never looked back, but instead, suffered their tragedies and walked off alone, into the future, each in a different way.
I question whether Dell and his sister are in character, true to the times in which the book is set. I also have a fraternal twin brother; we came from a modest background and were raised in a similar era, though not in the Midwest. We were not as naïve or as precocious as each of these twins alternately tended to be. We were self supporting at an early age. We were more worldly-wise, even if not told things at home because we learned them at school. The age of 15 was considered pretty mature and capable in those days. While reading, the reader will also wonder if any parents could be so unwise, so Pollyanna, so unaware of the consequences of their actions, so fanciful in the face of grave danger for themselves and their offspring.
The author is able to make the unusual mundane and day to day life experiences, complete with trauma, seem happenstance so that even though the characters may not seem true to life, they indeed do seem to be real where they are. The descriptions are very clear and concise. The reader becomes naïve, as well, and morphs into a Dell-like creature, unassuming, accepting and extremely adaptable, often thinking things out carefully, if not always logically, becoming a part of the story, following calmly along and accepting what occurs. There is little tension built as the story progresses, rather there is a tale being told in a very straightforward manner.
In the end, is the lesson learned that moment to moment life can change with each event moving us in a different direction, often not of our choosing, and yet, forcing us to prevail or fail? To succeed, we must act with an appreciation for what is happening, rather than a judgment condemning it. We must live with our consequences; we can be happy or sad, and as a friend of mine once said, "I can be happy or sad, I choose happy”.
The robbery changed the lives of the twins and each went off in their own direction, to make their own way, but the story is largely told by and is about, Dell. Who succeeded and who failed is in the eye of the reader. Was the marriage flawed and doomed from the beginning? Is doing the right thing sometimes the wrong thing because of the outcome? Did the robbery change their lives and point them in a different direction that was meant to be, or was it merely a different direction than they had hoped. Perhaps the robbery was meant to be. and the results were merely a part of a master plan from somewhere on high. Are there really so many people in life with less than stellar goals and sense of purpose? Can we really make lemonade when life hands us lemons? Ultimately, the reader will be the judge.