Book Review: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaCanada by Richard Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel honored when a book teaches me something new about reading, when a writer has the confidence in his story to pull no punches with his writing, trusting in the reader’s intelligence to absorb a story without telling her what she should feel.

What Richard Ford teaches me with the exquisite Canada is patience. He teaches me to pull back, hold on, allow the plot to reel out while keeping a closer eye on the characters and their actions and reactions. What he offers in return for my patience is writing that makes me nearly weep with envy: clean yet evocative, each detail chosen to express character and place without eclipsing the reader’s imagination.

The narrator, Dell Parsons, looks back across five decades to 1960, the year his mother and father robbed a bank in a small town in the plains of eastern Montana. From Dell’s tone – sometimes tender, sometimes ironic but always mild and thoughtful – you are fairly certain he turns out okay, despite the crises he endured during his formative years. These crises take a while to unfold. Ford introduces the bank robbery in the novel’s opening line, but maintains a brilliant balance between tension and torpidity by circling around the incident for more than one hundred pages.

In the interim he builds the portrait of a family who misses the mark of the American Dream. Bev Parsons, a husband with a handsome head in the clouds, leaves the Air Force and settles his wandering family in Great Falls, believing his charisma will lead to easy success, free from the structured demands of the military. He is mis-matched physically and intellectually with Neeva, his diminutive wife who rarely looks up from the drudgery of her life lest she be forced to acknowledge her disappointments. Their offspring – an awkward daughter saddled with an ugly face and the unfortunate name of Berner, and her younger-by-six-minutes twin, Dell, blessed with his father’s looks and an accommodating spirit – are raised with love, if not much stability.

Dell looks back at the decisions his parents made, at the moments when they approached the cliff and could have turned around, without judgment or bitterness. This is remarkable, because their foolishness upended his life; the bank robbery is only the beginning of a free fall that ends in murder, suicide and the dissolution of his family.

At the end of his life as he knows it, Dell sets out on a melancholy Odyssey from adolescence to adulthood. His internal journey first parallels a literal one as he moves from Great Falls to Partreau, Saskatchewan, a near-ghost town in the desolate prairies of central Canada. And from there his story continues as he fends for himself in a small world of cast-off adults.

Canada‘s story is created by a landscape of reflection and resolution, of lives that turn on a dime, where the border between possibility and no turning back can be crossed only once, but consequences follow forever.

Ford’s deliberative style is like a skilled horse rider’s loose hold on the reins – he doesn’t need to make the obvious moves to steer the horse – it takes only a slight movement of thigh or heel to communicate his desires. Equally, Ford communicates soul-shifting menace through the subtle nature of his characters and his setting- what he leaves out speaks to the power of what remains.

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Book Review: Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Through Black SpruceThrough Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Moosonee. End of the road. End of the tracks,” declares Will Bird, a Cree bush pilot lying broken in a hospital bed in this end of the tracks village in northern Ontario. He weaves his story silently, his voice imprisoned by his comatose state. Moosonee is remote, rugged, its Cree Nation inhabitants largely self-sufficient; it is also vulnerable. Poverty fuels drug and alcohol addiction. Those who do leave the community for the excitement and economic opportunity of Toronto or Montreal often fall prey to the cities’ darker sides.

This is a world of deep and disturbing contrasts. The great beauty of Ontario’s bush, the tightly-knit community that watches over its own, the commitment to holding on to an independent life are set against the violence of survival, the turning away from First Nations’ traditions and the glamour and degradation of shining and sinister cities.

Will is the son of Xavier Bird, the WWI sharpshooter whose story was told in the extraordinary Three Day Road. Although it is not necessary to have read Three Day Road to be fully engaged in Through Black Spruce, it provides considerable context as Will reflects on his past and considers his motivations. It also gives a broader historical perspective on Will’s tribe and the experience of First Nations’ people in the region.

Will takes us back through his recent history, explaining in tones that are unsentimental but often contrite, rueful, self-effacing and hilarious, how he came to this hospital bed. His story is the heart and soul of this novel. His sweet honesty charms, whether it is the stumbling jogs he takes along a dirt road, trying to shuffle off his mid-life beer belly, the ill-advised shine he takes to a blind and deaf “dump” bear, his halting romance with a childhood friend, or his multiple attempts to quit drinking. Most tender is his great love for his nieces, Annie and Suzanne.

Suzanne has vanished. Her beauty and wild spirit launches her into a lucrative modeling career, but somewhere along the way she mixed in with the unscrupulous. Her missteps lead directly to the hospital where her uncle now lies, unresponsive and shrinking. Annie, her less-lovely but fiercer sister, undertakes an Odyssean journey to the great cities of the south to find her.

Annie’s story intertwines with Will’s. Both narratives are rich with themes of grievous errors, the search for redemption, the struggle to balance old ways with new pressures, and the reluctance to believe they are worthy of love. I struggled, however, to connect with Annie’s experiences as she shimmers on the edges of the model-and-club scenes in Toronto, Montreal and New York City. She is too easily seduced by the glamour, the drugs, the money. Instead of finding her sister, Annie becomes her. The scenes border on the melodramatic as the world outside of Moosonee, particularly the United States, is portrayed as unrelentingly corrupt and dangerous. Annie is trailed through each city by a homeless, internet-savvy mute Indian, Gordon, whose chiseled torso and ropy muscles save Annie at every turn. Annie is able to return the favor as the two return north to the protection of the clan and Annie becomes teacher-guide to Gordon. Although his presence is odd, Gordon embodies a vision of the modern Indian returning to his cultural roots, to learn and embrace the old ways as he cleanses his soul of the corrupt contemporary world. He is a far more intriguing character than Annie’s other new pals: models and it-crowd sycophants – who are ciphers that add little to Annie’s development or to the plot thread of Suzanne’s disappearance.

But Boyden’s skill as a storyteller propels the reader through these incongruous passages. The constantly-shifting narrative maintains a taut pace. The events – whether jolting or endearing – are unexpected and drive you to turn each page. The central characters are brought to life with vivid description and fine dialogue. You ache for their salvation. This is an immensely satisfying read by a supremely gifted writer.

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Book Review: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Three Day RoadThree Day Road by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Xavier Bird, a young Ojibwa from the Moose Cree tribe in northern Ontario, returns to Canada from the Europe’s Western Front in the summer of 1919. He is alone, in unimaginable pain from an amputated leg, addicted to morphine, and dying from a spirit broken by the nightmare of war.

Carrying him home in her dugout canoe is his aunt Niska, an elderly medicine woman who has lived on her own in the bush since escaping a Catholic boarding school in her teens. Through a twisting, dreamlike journey of words and images we follow Xavier and Niska on a three-day river trail home. The journey takes us through the years of these characters’ lives. To distract Xavier from his pain and to quell her own anxiety over his addiction and the emotional wounds that she cannot heal, Niska recounts her childhood as European settlers closed in on her tribe’s ancestral territories. She reveals how she survived and thrived on her own, fell in love with a French trapper, learned to use her healing and divining powers, and how she saved Xavier from subjugation at the hands, whips and rum of white settlers.

Xavier crossed the Atlantic as a Canadian Army private with his best friend, Elijah Weesageechak (“Whiskeyjack” to non-Cree speakers). Elijah had spent his early years at a Catholic boarding school and is fluent in English, but ignorant of his tribe’s hunting, tracking and survival skills. He is reclaimed by the Cree forest and comes of age with Niska and Xavier. Xavier is a patient teacher and Elijah a crack student. By the time the young men arrive in Europe, their marksmanship skills are renowned. They are selected to train with an elite group of snipers. Xavier is soon overshadowed by Elijah’s charisma and ego but the two remain a team during their nearly two years on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Why Xavier returns to his homeland alone becomes the thread of tension that reverberates keenly to the final pages.

This is a beautifully written yet brutal novel. Each modern war has its unique horrors. Three Day Road mires the reader in the muck of World War I trench warfare as bodies pile in corners, lice pulse in clothing seams, and toes rot black with trench foot. Boyden spares no detail of hand-to-hand combat, of the blood-lust that becomes the sole means of emotional survival for some soldiers, of the ache for the relief of morphine. The devastation is so relentless, you understand any soldier’s break with reason, you feel their uncontrollable rage and their sense of hopelessness as they accept that each moment may be their last.

It is Boyden’s amazing storytelling ability and his skills in pacing and tension that keep the gore from overwhelming the narrative. The characters who ripple through bring life and dimension to the battlefields, farmland, forest and hearths of Europe and Canada. This is historical fiction at its finest: a scholar’s command of factual detail balanced by a storyteller’s heart and passion. Niska provides us with an historical context, telling the story of northern First Nations in the early part of the 20th century. Xavier’s story is the eternal lesson that nothing good comes of war, a lesson we seemed destined to repeat and fail at least once each generation.

I’m glad I waited a few more days to compile my Best Reads of 2011 list. Three Day Road will surely appear in the top ten.

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Book Review: The Outlander, Gil Adamson

The OutlanderThe Outlander by Gil Adamson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love being drawn in and surprised by a great story. And when the writing is as beautiful as Ms. Adamson’s, a celebrated Canadian poet, it becomes an all-too-rare treat: a book I must tear myself away from as the clock ticks into the start of my work day.

Following The Outlander is a conversation between the author, Gil Adamson, and the writer Michael Ondaatje. Ms Adamson describes an image that came to her unbidden, one which she set to paper. She saw a young woman in a black dress fleeing an unseen pursuer. The image became the opening scene of this powerful historical suspense.

This is a thriller, not a mystery. We know who committed the crime, and as the story unfolds, we learn why. But the chase grabs us from the first sentence and holds us to the story’s final words, “Find me.” At times the followed become the pursuers; at times they become the left behind. The thrills are woven into a rich and deeply satisfying tale set in the Alberta Rockies at the turn of the 20th century.

The author’s gorgeous prose reveals the awesome and dreadful beauty of the setting . She presents us with a host of vivid, unforgettable characters: grim, ginger-haired twins bent on revenge; a Jeremiah Johnson-like recluse who runs from the shelter of love; a pugilistic preacher and an enterprising dwarf who provide moral guidance and whisky to exhausted miners; and the protagonist, Mary, a beautiful runaway, driven nearly mad with grief and terror. Her Odyssey through the mountains and plains of central Canada holds us captive. We shrink as she slowly starves, we soar when she is saved by strangers, we will her to survive as tragedy crushes her hope.

There are dark and terrible images, balanced by sweet moments of humor and grace. Ms. Adamson has created a thing of magic in The Outlander– a literary Western deeply connected by careful research and intricate details to the history of its setting that is also a wonderfully imaginative thriller you cannot put down.

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