Even though he had long been described as one of Canada’s finest writers, the general public became aware of Alistair MacLeod only after the publication of his bestselling first novel, No Great Mischief (1999). MacLeod is hardly prolific. Over a three-decade period, though he worked steadily on his short fiction, he produced just sixteen stories. All but one of them appeared initially in Canadian and American literary magazines, but they were later published in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood(1976) and in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), both of which had gone out of print when the success of the novel created a demand for MacLeod’s other work. Island: The Complete Stories was published in response to that demand.
Almost all of MacLeod’s works are set in Canada’s eastern provinces, mostly on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and almost all of his characters are descended from the Scottish Highlanders who were driven into exile during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but who tried to remain faithful to the values they brought with them to the New World. The one exception is “The Golden Gift of Grey,” which takes place in northern Indiana, where MacLeod taught during the 1960’s. However, like his other stories, it focuses on the conflict between traditional values and the selfish materialism of contemporary world.
In “The Golden Gift of Grey,” a father has brought his family from a coal camp in rural Kentucky, where they lived in a close-knit community but could hardly make ends meet, to Indiana, where he can make a decent living. However, he now sees his children rejecting everything he and his wife hold dear, from mountain music to simple virtues and parental authority itself. Jesse, the teenage protagonist, understands enough about his parents’ values to feel guilty about skipping school to gamble in a pool hall, but he convinces himself that by giving them the thirty-one dollars he has won, he can earn their forgiveness. His parents do not agree. They order him to return what they see as tainted money, and he feels compelled to obey them. However, when his fellow-gambler figures out a way that Jesse can keep the money without actually lying to his parents, Jesse is delighted. To him, this seems like a happy ending. Not only can he keep the money, but he thinks he that he has also found a true friend. In reality, though, Jesse has sold out his parents and the values by which they live. He has entered a world in which there is very little black and white but a great deal of grey.
Like the parents in “The Golden Gift of Grey,” the seventy-eight-year-old protagonist of “The Tuning of Perfection” has based his life on a belief in absolutes. Archibald is appalled by the way old values such as respect for nature, for life, and for truth are being discarded. He is shocked when he learns that the young mare he has just sold will be bred constantly, her urine used for human birth control pills, her colts destroyed. He is worried when he hears that the eagles he so admires are doomed; they will disappear just as soon as Nova Scotians begin using pesticides or herbicides.
The only glimmer of hope in Archibald’s lonely life comes when folklorists find him and show an interest in the old Gaelic songs he is more than willing to sing for them. Then a granddaughter asks him to help train a family group to compete in a Gaelic song contest, with the winning group to be sent to Halifax, where they will stay for six days, performing on radio and television and even appearing before members of the royal family. Archibald sees this as his chance to help preserve the songs his ancestors brought with them from the Highlands. However, most of the other singers, including his granddaughter, see the venture merely as a way to get a free vacation and to make a little money. They cannot understand Archibald’s reluctance to cut the songs to fit the promoters’ time schedule, nor can the promoters understand his insistence that narratives that are halted midway through will make no sense. After all, they argue, the audience does not know the language. Archibald cannot compromise. He refuses to cut the songs, and the promoters turn to a group that will sing nonsense syllables if they are paid enough.
However, MacLeod is too good a writer to leave his story at that. He knows that life is complicated, and he knows that even history is a matter of perception. Several days after Archibald has made his fateful decision, some of the men in the rival group arrive at his house, drunk and battle-scarred, bearing liquor they...
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