I reckon we all lay great store in compelling fictional voices. Coleridge summons this up in his Ancient Mariner who fixes the Wedding Guest with “his glittering eye . . . He cannot choose but hear.” The artistry of great story tellers lies in their ability to establish not simply a credible voice, but one which, for want of a better word, enchants. The commonplace (after Hemingway) is that Mark Twain in Huck Finn offered a paradigmatic American voice, ingenuous, colloquial, and convincing. Twain gives us something authentic: mimetic, unique, and yet representative. To read the critical praise of Richard Ford’s Canada is to be asked to think over the issue of creation of voice. The narrator, Dell Parsons, is a retired sixty-five year old English teacher who recounts the events he lived through in Great Falls, Montana, fifty years before. Dell’s coming of age is unusual: he must deal with the devastating fact that his parents have crossed a significant boundary. To rescue themselves from debts owed to Native Americans, co-conspirators in a stolen beef racket, Dell’s parents rob a bank, are caught and imprisoned. They leave Dell and his twin sister, Berner, alone and about to be placed in the care of the state. Both elude that fate in dissimilar ways. But it is Dell’s voice as much as the story he tells that arrests. The very immediacy of incident that Huck characteristically conveys so also does Dell. Yet the latter has fifty years of hindsight to distance himself from the events that led to his escape into Canada.
Ford deftly balances two perspectives throughout the telling of Dell’s story. The rendering of the incidents of 1960 is as vivid as if recorded at the time. Then effortlessly, the distance lengthens and we have ruminative passages, clearly the result of years of reflection, that attempt to understand the emotions remembered by Dell’s younger self. Ford allows the mature Dell to place them in a context of lessons learned or attempts to approximate universals in all lives.
These sections never lay heavily upon the jarringly juxtaposed transitions Dell must accommodate. He is suddenly removed without explanation to a remote village in Canada, his hopes for an education are frustrated, and he finds himself living in a hovel and forced into menial duties. He services goose hunters who are guests in a hotel owned by Arthur Remlinger, the man who nominally protects Dell. Arthur grooms Dell for his work with the hunters through his surrogate, Charlie Quarters, a riddling, violent half-breed whose menacing presence is off-set by his tutoring of Dell in the arts of digging “goose pits” and dealing with goose carcasses. The questions that surround the sudden change in his life, the motives of his parents and the designs of Arthur and Charlie make him a cautious and intensely observant presence. His senses are alert to the subtlest nuances of smell and sight. He understands that he is being put to use by Arthur, but to what end he fathoms only after the fact. Again and again, Ford’s mature Dell tries to explain to himself the motivation of his father, of his emotionally distant mother, and of his intimately close but utterly different twin. The reflections are compelling. Take this example quoted in The Guardian’s review:
: “I believe in what you see being most of what there is… and that life’s passed on to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.”
Dell never descends to commonplaces. When his tale is complete, when we know what has happened to his mother, father, Berner, Arthur, and Charlie, we know deeply what has happened within Dell. Ford creates for us a partner in a dialogue from whom we seem unable to disengage.