And so, as foreshadowed, Part II finds young Dell whisked across our northern border to a dark room in Saskatchewan to escape social service agents. It’s a poorly conceived move that subjects the boy to the manipulations of a spoiled, cowardly guardian dogged by fears of retribution and willing to use anyone to avoid punishment — exactly the sort of mercurial man Dell can't comprehend. In those frightening months of neglect and abuse, he becomes guarded and observant. His trust in the possibility of a good life, no matter what’s happening to him, is achingly tender. “My part was to find a way to be normal,” he says. “Children know normal better than anyone.”
But what still fascinates him after all these years is the deceptive resemblance of Canada to the United States. “If anything, the similarity to America made its foreignness profound,” he says. The people dress and, mostly, talk the same, the landscape is not very dissimilar, and yet he has crossed a border, entered a different country. That geographical transition quickly evolves into a compelling metaphor: the thin boundary between what’s acceptable and what’s illicit, between a functioning family and four strangers, between a happy son and a lost orphan. How easy it is, Dell knows, to slip from one side to the other without realizing it.
All of this arrives in the humble grandeur of prose that could teach anyone how to write better — even how to live better. I’m reminded of a long essay John Gardner wrote more than 30 years ago with the deadly title, “On Moral Fiction,” which accused contemporary novelists of abrogating their responsibility: “Either they pointlessly waste our time, saying and doing nothing, or they celebrate ugliness and futility, scoffing at good.” Gardner didn’t expect novels to be didactic or full of pat ethical instructions, but he believed they should have “a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human beings toward virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference.”
In the most gracious way, Ford has done just that. Dell is haunted by that saddest lament — “If only” — the burden of what ruined men might have been, but he fundamentally rejects despair and cynicism in favor of what he’s learned to be true. Always a careful craftsman, Ford has polished the plainspoken lines of “Canada” to an arresting sheen. He’s working somewhere between Marilynne Robinson (without the theology) and Cormac McCarthy (without the gore). The wisdom he offers throughout these pages can be heard in the hushed silence that follows this harrowing tale.
Charles is The Post’s fiction critic. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles. On May 23, Richard Ford will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW in Washington.