The year is 1960, and the scene is Great Falls, Montana. A real town which, like Richard Russo’s fictional Empire Falls, Maine, seems chosen for the irony in the name given the story to be told. The protagonist and narrator here is Dell Parsons, a fifteen-year-old boy who is earnest but rootless, with a father in the military whose rank isn’t what it once was, a twin sister who’s light years ahead of him developmentally but lacks his passion for school or chess, and a mother and part-time schoolteacher who is hostage to her lowly and itinerant circumstances. “We were a family who didn’t travel,” Dell tells us, “unless we were moving to a new town.”
The general contours of the disaster to come, we learn on page one:
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”
This is confident, even audacious storytelling—not because it’s showy, but because it refuses to show off at all. In the early going, Ford leaps forward on occasion, teasing out what’s coming, sometimes narrating from the perspective of an earnest fifteen-year-old, other times with the benefit of adult hindsight. Some of this is hardly even noticeable, and all of it works.
To some extent the suspense lies in how these crimes will come to be committed. But far more than this, the story is driven by how these events come to shape a young man trying to find his way in a young life; how he sees what is happening to his family and himself; and what he makes of life under extreme circumstances, after he’s driven by his aunt north across the border to avoid becoming a ward of the state. There he lives with shady characters in a sparsely populated backwater that has a lodge where Americans come to hunt ducks and Dell works for his keep. Dell makes of it what he can.
“It would never be a place with big oak trees and a football field and boys my age to accept me—the way I’d almost had it in Great Falls. This would never be what I wanted. It was Canada.”
Dell’s father, Bev Parsons, is a man burdened by limitless imagination, endless optimism and an astonishing lack of judgment, who finds a silver lining in any omen. When the bank he cased for a heist at nine o’clock one morning turns out to be far busier than he’d seen before on the day in question, he convinces himself all this will serve as some grand diversion. Needless to say, it doesn’t.
The first of two or three beautiful endings—at the close of Part One, two hundred pages in—has Dell’s twin sister leaving the house after their parents are jailed and nobody’s yet come to take them away.
“To concentrate on Berner leaving would make all this seem to be about loss—which isn’t how I think about it to this very day. I think of it as being about progress, and the future, which aren’t always easy to see when you’re so close to both of them.”
Part Two begins shortly thereafter and just in time, with a friend of their mother coming to take Dell before the child welfare services people descend. She drives him north for hours, crossing the border and dropping him into his new life. He grows up in a hurry, and meets some indelible characters in a once-grand duck-hunting lodge, though the parts Dell lives in are spartan to say the least. The grand character at the center of it, one Arthur Remlinger, owns the lodge and his own mysterious background, which has him living so far from anything that feels like civilization or normal life. Dell will finish growing up here, and one wonders what will become of him.
In Part Three we meet the adult Dell has become, a middle-aged secondary school teacher in Canada. We learn what he’s made of all that went on before, and what’s become of his twin sister, who has lived a lowly life and taken their father’s name, Bev, as hers some years back. In the closing portions of the novel, the aging narrator who opened the story reflects back on all this from whatever perspective our lives give us. Wry, dry pearls follow. Like the first five pages, which feature some of the most keenly observed descriptions of a protagonist’s parents in the American canon, these last five pages are worth the price of admission all on their own.
In between lies the great American novel of our times.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .