The distinguished American writer Richard Ford, 68, author of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Independence Day, has visited Canada often over the last half century. He has always been fascinated by how it holds up both a mirror and an open window to his own country. “Canada is a profoundly different place from America, in almost every subtle way it can be, and yet to the cursory onlooker it could look the same,” as he put it in an interview.“Only it isn’t, even if it’s hard to put in words. The markers are everywhere, literally everywhere. If you go into Canada not looking for them, you won’t see them, but once you notice one, the place becomes terrifically foreign. It never seems like America to me, ever.”
The blurry nature of our common border made it the perfect frontier for Ford’s new novel, Canada, in which any number of lines—between nations, youth and adulthood, reason and madness—are fatefully crossed, often before anyone realizes it. Its main character, accidental Canadian Dell Parsons, shares his creator’s looks-the-same-but-feels-different take on his new home. Narrating the novel from the perspective of his 15-year-old self in the summer of 1960, when his parents committed a crime and he was sent away from his Montana home to the care of a psychotic American ex-pat in Saskatchewan, Dell describes how that feeling grew in him.
The little town of Fort Royal was a lively place in the early autumn and benefited considerably by comparison to Partreau, where I was made to live, four miles away—a strange, vacant, ghostly residence except for Charley in his trailer and Mrs. Gedins, who rarely acknowledged me. Fort Royal was a small, bustling prairie community on the railroad line and the 32 highway between Leader and Swift Current. It must’ve been little different from the town where my father robbed the bank in North Dakota.
The Leonard dominated the west end of Main Street and was wood-constructed and three stories and perfectly square and painted white, with a flat roof and rows of empty unadorned windows, and offered a small featureless street entrance opening into a dark reception, a windowless dining room, and a shadowy windowless bar achieved through a narrow corridor to the back. The Leonard had a sign on its roof—which a person couldn’t see from town, but that I could see from down the highway when I rode to work and back. Red neon spelled out LEONARD HOTEL in squat square letters, and beside it was the neon outline of a butler offering a round tray with a martini glass. (I didn’t yet know what a martini was.) It was a strange sight to see from out on the prairie. But I liked seeing it as I came and went. It referred to a world away from where it was, and I was, and yet was there in front of me every day, like a mirage or a dream.
On days I stayed in town, whiling hours until I’d get to eat again—following which I’d pedal back tired to Partreau before the dark highway turned treacherous with grain trucks and farm boys beered up for the evening—I often walked about the town of Fort Royal, taking a look at what it contained. I did this both because it was new for me to be alone and not looked after; and also because the little that was there made what I saw more striking, and I’d decided the way not to be forlorn and plagued by morbid thoughts was to investigate and take an interest in things the way someone would whose job was to write about it for the World Book. But, too—which is at the deepest heart of those lonely prairie towns—I took my tours because there was nothing else to do, and choosing to be an investigator conferred a small freedom I’d never known up to then, having lived only with my sister and my parents. And finally, I did it because it was Canada where I was, and I knew nothing about that—how it was different from America, and how it was alike. Both things I wanted to know.
I walked the hard pavement down Main Street in my new dungarees and secondhand Thom McAns, feeling that no one noticed me. I didn’t know Fort Royal’s population, or why a town was there or why anyone lived there, or even why it was called Fort Royal—except possibly because an army outpost might’ve been there in the pioneer time. Its businesses ran on both sides of Main, which was the highway, and there seemed to me just enough of everything to make a town. Grain trucks and farm trucks and tractors passed through the middle every day. There was a barbershop, a combined Chinese laundry and café, a pool hall, a post office with a picture of the Queen on the wall inside, a community hall, two small doctors’ offices, a Sons of Norway, a Woolworth’s, a drugstore, a movie house, six churches (including a Moravian, a Catholic and a Bethel Lutheran), a closed library, an abattoir and an Esso. There was a co-op department store where Charley had bought my pants and underwear and shoes and a coat. There was the Royal Bank, a fire station, a jeweller, a tractor repair and a smaller hotel, the Queen of Snows, with its own licensed bar. There was no school for students, but there’d been one—its square, white frame presence sat across from a tiny, treeless park, furnished with a war monument with men’s names carved in, and a flag and a flagpole. There were 10 neat squared-off, unpaved streets of modest white houses where the town residents lived. These had clean lawns, often with a single spruce tree planted and a garden plot, the last petunias blooming in box beds, sometimes the English flag on a pole surrounded by white-painted rocks, or a Catholics’ crèche I identified from Montana. There was also a fenced-in dirt baseball diamond, an ice rink for curling and hockey when the winter came down, a weedy tennis court with no net, and a cemetery, south toward where the fields took up and the town stopped.
On my tours I looked studiously into the jewellery shop window—at the Bulovas and Longines and Elgins, and the tiny diamond engagements and the bracelets and silver services and hearing aids and trays of bright ear bobs. I entered the shadowy drugstore and purchased a small clock for my early wake-ups and breathed the scents of the ladies’ perfumes and sweet soap and the soda fountain water and the sharp odours of chemicals from the back rooms and the customers’ counter. On one afternoon, I stopped in the Chevy agency and inspected the new model they had—a shiny red Impala hardtop my father would’ve valued highly. I sat for a time in its driver’s seat and imagined myself driving fast over the open prairie, just as I’d done when he’d brought a new DeSoto home and parked it in front, and life for Berner and me had been uneventful. A salesman in a yellow bow tie came over and stood by the door, and informed me I could drive the Chevy home if I wanted to, then he laughed and asked me where I was from. I told him I was American, I was visiting my uncle at the Leonard, that my father sold cars in “the States” (a new expression to me). But he didn’t seem interested after that and walked away.
On another day, I walked to the shut-down library and looked in through its thick glass door, down the aisles of empty shelving, the toppled-over chairs, the librarian’s tall desk turned sideways to the door in the gloom. I read the marquee at the movie house, which operated only on weekends and only showed “horse operas.” I explored down the dirt alleys behind town to the switch yard, watched the grain and tanker cars shunting east and west—as I’d also done before in Great Falls—the same gaunt rail riders eyeing me as if they knew me as they slid past in the boxcar doors. I walked past the abattoir, where “killing day” was Tuesday—a handwritten sign said—and a doomed cow stood in the back corral waiting. I passed the Massey-Harris repair where men were back in the dark bay, soldering farm equipment with torches and masks. The cemetery was beyond the town limit, but I didn’t walk to there. I’d never been in a cemetery but didn’t think it could be different in Canada.
It is, of course, very different to walk through a town when you’re a member of a family that’s waiting at home a short distance away—as opposed to being someone who no one’s waiting for or thinking about or wondering what you might be doing or if you’re all right. I did these tours many more times than once that early September, while the weather changed, as it suddenly does there, and the summer I’d lived through disappeared, and the prospect of winter arose for me and everyone. Very few people spoke to me, although no one seemed specifically not to speak to me. Almost everyone I passed on the street looked me in my eyes and registered me as seen, certifying, I believed, that a private memory had been made and I should know that. And even if nothing in Fort Royal seemed distinctive to me, I was someone distinctive among people who all knew one another and relied on knowing it. (This was the crucial element my father had failed to understand, and why he’d been caught after he’d robbed the bank in North Dakota.) You could say I performed my tours the way anyone would who was a stranger to a place. But it was a place odd for being in a separate country, and yet didn’t feel or appear so different from what I already knew. If anything, the similarity to America made its foreignness profound, and also attractive to me, so that in the end I liked it.
From: Canada by Richard Ford. © 2012 Richard Ford. Published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.