Richard Ford is one of America’s greatest living writers. I think that his trilogy of novels, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Let Me Be Frank with You, all featuring the central character Frank Bascombe, are second only to John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels for sheer excellence in writing and the creation of such a quintessential American character.
Ford’s latest book is really a memoir, called “Between Them”, in which he tries to remember and recreate the lives of both of his parents, one in each of two memoirs that constitutes this book (actually written decades apart). Both his parents were originally from tiny towns in Arkansas , truly the middle of nowhere, and Ford senior takes a job, early on, as a salesman on the road for a company selling vast quantities of bleach, out of Kansas City. His territory is much of the South, including particularly Mississippi, parts of Arkansas, New Orleans and rural Louisiana, and a bit of Tennessee. He leaves on Monday mornings and returns on Friday afternoons, and he manages to keep this job throughout the Depression. Unusually, though, when he marries Ford’s mother Edna, she travels with him for nearly a decade until their one child, Richard himself , is born, about l5 years into their marriage, and, by then, unexpected. Their life on the road, in hotels, and hotel coffee shops, and the like, gave Ford’s parents immense amounts of time and pleasure together, and Ford is very certain of the intense love between his two parents. His father, a very decent man, who slowly rises economically, does have a weak heart, and dies young. But while he’s alive, the father continues traveling on the road alone, as mother Edna stays home with son Richard.
The memoir of Ford’s mother is more convincing than that of his father; like most boys who were born in the late forties, fathers weren’t around much, as they were out making a living, so Ford’s bond with his mother Edna is unusually strong. And she’s not a terribly publicly emotional woman, nor is his father such. Ford’s memories, of course, are those he happens to remember, enhanced by some achingly touching old photos of the three of them together (touching for their ordinariness). Amazingly, though, Ford manages to remain very close to his mother as long as she lived, a life that was problemmatic after her husband’s early death, but which she continues to live because she has to. She sounds like an amazing woman, and Ford’s own wife, Kristina, also seems highly bonded with Richard’s mother; visits to and from the East Coast where Ford mainly settled are common, as are his and his wife’s visits to Arkansas, where Edna lives til her own death.
But, oh, the excellence of Ford’s writing! Ford’s like a pianist, who knows exactly how much pedal to add to his prose, and so it builds and builds, slowly and, perhaps, Southernly, into a memoir of extreme power and beauty. It’s not only that he recreates the lives of two people who neither sought nor gathered fame or fortune, though he does, but he tries to persuade us of the value of lives lived with love, and it appears that his parents’ bond was a mighty strong and loving one. Ford describes his own childhood very fondly, semi-aware of the radical changes in his parents’ lives because of his birth. Because this memoir is so much the opposite of so many victim memoirs of our times, it is that much more powerful and, I think, important. Ford writes with elegance, a kind of slightly understated prose that’s very effective, so that his fortissimo writing soars and brings us with him. When Ford becomes aware that his mother is dying, we are privy to some gorgeous writing and thinking. It’s basically a happy memoir, rare enough in today’s victim-prone world, but its power is in Ford’s writing, and his obvious love for his mother in particular, whom he also looks just like.
Between Them also implies that there’s much Ford wasn’t privy to, as most of what occurs in a family does remain between the parents. And it may be that his own birth was the main event that came between the two parents: no mind, because Richard Ford has taken a couple who didn’t ask for much, lived with consummate dignity, and he proposes that love given and shared is the most profound thing in the universe. It’s a most persuasive and beautiful book.