Click here to read reviewer Steven Rosen's take on Canada.
Pulitzer-winner Ford again reminds me of the particularity of such a unique talent and the determination to catalog a young manís journey through the early days of his life in ambitious detail. As the son of mismatched parents who settle in Montana after Beverly Parsonís years in the Army Air Corps, Dell and his fraternal twin sister, Brenner, spend the idle days waiting to grow up. Their selection of friends is limited by eccentric parents and a general lack of interest in outside activitiesósave Dellís secret ambition to become a chess player.
Their childhood years generally unhappy and uneventful, everything changes when Beverly engages in illegal activity for profit and gets into a threatening situation where he needs money quicklyólots of money. Parsonís answer to the immediate problem is to rob a bank in North Dakota, taking along his reluctant wife as his partner in crime in lieu of fifteen-year-old Dell. After a nearly fruitless robbery with little to show for their efforts, the parents return to Montana. There they are eventually arrested.
The twins fall through a bureaucratic hole and are left to fend for themselves (although Ford offers one unexpected scene where brother and sister reach for one another for a small measure of comfort in their fear and loneliness). While Berner takes to the road on her own, Dell is spirited away to Saskatchewan, Canada, by Mildred Remlinger, Dellís motherís only friend. Mildred delivers the rootless adolescent to her brother, Arthur Remlinger, Dell never again to see his parents or enjoy the security of a safe home environment.
Under Remlingerís care, Dell spends his time in tiny Partreau in a two-room shack, later moving to Fort Royal, where he resides at Remlingerís hotel, The Leonard, and is finally given more attention by the man who has accepted the responsibility of the young manís well-being. A bizarre childhood, with its abrupt trajectory into tragedy, prepares Dell for a cautious approach to life, isolation rendering him thoughtful and given to considering the motives of others. As events evolve, Dellís early admiration of Arthur Remlinger sours, as he learns of the manís sordid and violent past. A reckoning between Arthur and two strangers from Detroit puts paid any notion Dell might have of his mentorís worth, an association that ends badly.
The oppressive nature of this novel is relentless. While I can appreciate its literary nature, there is not a moment of inspiration in the entire novel, a long, detailed narration of an unhappy if uneventful childhood, the tedium of time passing and endless ruminations on why two boring people stay married when they are so obviously unsuitable. The entire first half of the book is devoted to the idiosyncrasies of the Parsonsí characters, though neither is remotely interesting. The second half, a recounting of Dellís experiences with Arthur Remlinger, has more action but is equally ponderous and without stimulation or emotional complexity. I felt caught in a time warp, trapped in someone elseís life like a Dickensian nightmare, a wilderness with no escape. I barely managed to finish this novel, so agonizing was the experience. I give it four stars for the sheer perseverance of a writer committed to telling Dellís story.