Canada by Richard Ford is a mystery novel. Not a whodunit, since Ford explicitly tells us what will happen on the first page. Also, the novel is styled as the memoirs of a retired teacher, who has long lived with the violent events in his youth. The mystery in Part One is “Why?”. Why did his rather normal parents stage an armed robbery? The mystery in Part Two is “When?”. When will the murder happen? The mystery of the novel as a whole is “Who”? The most elemental mystery: Who am I?
Dell is fifteen during the action of the novel. An introspective boy, he has learned to make the best of any situation. One could consider that this was because his father was in the US air force and the family moved often. Except that his twin sister learned sneering bravado and discontent.
After his father’s dishonorable discharge, living in Great Fall infused discontent into every family member. Rather stoically, Dell straightens his mental landscape. He learns chess, sadly playing by himself most of the time, and develops his interest in bee keeping, while waiting to go to school in September. Crashing into his carefully managed thoughts and good intentions are the bank robbery and arrest of his parents in front of the two children. In a strangled sort of logic, his mother had arranged for the disposition of her twins prior to the robbery, and Dell is called upon again to adapt to almost untenable circumstances.
Which he does. In a dilapidated village in southern Saskatchewan. Canada is the terra incognita. This novel plays out entirely in the mind of a well-behaved teenager growing into adulthood. His thinking cracks like the voice of a teenaged boy. He imagines that he is navigating on a successful course, only to be unexpectedly jolted by strange adult behaviours. Each time, he tries to incorporate these new lessons into his perception of adulthood, although even he understands that all the adults who keep changing his life are highly unreliable. Thus, through his own thoughtfulness, Dell does steer his future into the calm prosperity his family always wanted for themselves. He alone applies the philosophy that your life is what you make of it.