A Boy Survivor

I’ve been reading Richard Ford’s novel Canada, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy whose parents—unexpectedly, disastrously—rob a bank in 1960 in North Dakota. Damn, this is some fine writing.

One paragraph in particular encapsulates what separates human beings who recover from trauma and those who do not. It is almost a trick of the imagination, a kind of elegant delusion that changes everything. The boy and his sister have just visited their parents in jail, for what would be the first and last time. They are alone and abandoned in the world, and yet the boy makes a decision, as they stand on a bridge, staring out at the Missouri River:

“I wondered, for just that moment, if we were like that: small, fixed figures being ordered around by forces greater than ourselves. I decided we weren’t. Whether we liked it or even knew it, we were accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design….And by then I was well on my way to knowing how to subordinate one thing to another—a lesson the game of chess teaches you, and does so almost immediately. The events that made all the difference to our parents’ lives were becoming secondary to the events carrying me onward from that August day….I believe that’s ... why I felt freed…why my heart was beating hard with exhilaration.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a grown-up author occupy the voice of a teenagerso completely. That is hard to do. I keep having to remind myself that this experience did not actually happen to Richard Ford. It is fiction, which makes it brilliant.