In 1960, when Dell Parsons was 15, his father, a retired Air Force captain, and his mother, a teacher, robbed a North Dakota bank. They got away with $2,500, but not for long.
No one, including their twin son and daughter at home in Great Falls, Mont., thought them capable of such ruinous stupidity.
That may sound like an implausible premise for a novel. But part of the magic of Richard Ford's Canada is how his narrator, Dell, telling the story 50 years later, convinces readers otherwise.
Something may seem ridiculous, Dell says, "but that was how very bad things often came about in the world." From his own life, he knew "the implausible often became as plausible as the sun coming up."
As for his parents, "We loved both of them, for what it mattered. This shouldn't get lost in the telling."
Dell's matter-of-fact telling is a triumph of voice. He knows what he didn't know when he was 15 and all that he will never know. The novel is a mystery, but no simple whodunit.
After their parents are arrested, Dell's sister runs away, and he ends up in Saskatchewan (hence the title) with a mysterious American who's hiding something.
The writing by Ford, who won the Pulitzer in 1996 for Independence Day, is spare, but heartbreaking.
Dell tells of "homeless men, men sprawled on the pavement in front of bars... In their faces — plenty of them were handsome but ruined — I've seen the remnants of who they almost succeeded in being but failed to be, before becoming themselves. It's a theory of destiny and character I don't like or want to believe in. But it's there in me like a hard understory. I don't, in fact, ever see such a ruined man without saying silently to myself: There's my father. My father is that man."
The story unfolds slowly, but ends powerfully. Dell becomes a teacher — the kind who knows Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad and life itself. When students say, "I don't see what this has to do with us," he replies, "Does everything have to be about you? Can you not project yourself outside yourself? Can you not take on another's life for your own benefit?"
Which is what Ford does so well.