I have been reflecting on why this novel touched me so much, got under my skin as I read it, and continues to stay on my mind. When we read, we naturally empathize and imagine how we would act in one situation or another, how we (or in this case our children) might respond to whatever fate throws in the path of the protagonist. I think it is Dell’s innocence that got to me, his way of quietly rearranging his hopes each time they have been dashed, of figuring out how to cope with the sad reality and serious uncertainty of his young life. He longs to go to school and have friends, to play chess, to have his father’s attention, to learn about bees, to go to the State Fair – and at every turn even these modest desires are thwarted.
Telling a story through the eyes of a child is not easy, and yet Ford channels Dell perfectly. Even though Dell is relating the story from a temporal distance, now retired and reflecting back on his life, the vulnerability of the young Dell comes through clearly. Children take in much more than adults give them credit for, and Dell’s observation of the details of daily life with his family and his inner commentary and interpretation of remarks, behaviors, and events give this book its powerful mood. Children can also be very vigilant if they feel that somehow things are not right, are not going well, and try to make sense of what they are seeing, as Dell does. He is uneasy as he tries to figure out where their family might be heading, literally and figuratively.
Dell and his twin sister Berner have moved many times, been uprooted from anything familiar, and their life with their parents is only barely stable when very unfortunate events throw them into even more tragic circumstances for which they bear no responsibility. Their parents’ mistakes shape them and continue to color their lives even when the parents are long gone. Dell and Berner take, or are taken on, different paths, both very lonely ones. The separation of the siblings soon after their parents are arrested and their loss of contact over so many years is one of the saddest parts of Canada for me. The last familiar person is gone, and there is no knowing if they will ever see each other again.
By the end of the book, Dell has been able to scavenge some good from his life, and apparently to make peace with his history. Berner was not so lucky. Is Canada, in the end, a hopeful book? What lessons can we take from it?
Read more about Deborah and her selection on the DukeReads website.