I'm a high school student, and English is my second language. I'm really struggling with understanding the Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod. Could you please help me with...

I'm a high school student, and English is my second language. I'm really struggling with understanding the Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod. Could you please help me with summarizing stories such as:

1. "The Boat"

2. "The Return"

3. "Island"

4. "The Vastness of the Dark" ... Thanks.

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator, the "I" of the story, frames his narrative with his present-day life in which he awakens with the old feelings and the old urgency from the time when he stayed by his father's side and fished the sea from May first to the end of November, when the North Atlantic seas became brutal with man-killing waves. He establishes the reality of his present-day life by saying that, after dreams of the old days, and four a.m. walks through bitter cold to chase off memories, he rushes off to teach at "a great Midwestern university." A reminiscent tone of jolting sorrow in a life once lived is established by this narrative frame, which isn't enough to prepare the reader for the jolting ending.

In a broad allusion to Dickens' David Copperfield, an allusion later brought into clear relief, the narrator starts his life's story with a recollection of his early consciousness of "the boat" and of his father's "gigantic rubber boots," boots seen from the vantage point of the floor when an infant. Later, from the vantage point of his father's shoulders, he became conscious of the "galumphing along the gravel beach" of his father's rubber boots, accompanied by his father's song.

The boat to which he was introduced and his father shared the same "odour of the salt." The boat was part of everyday conversation: mended clothes were "'torn in the boat'," prepared food was "'to be eaten in the boat'," his mother always looked out the kitchen window for sight of "'the boat'." "Well, how did things go in the boat today?" A "Cape Island boat," it was "named Jenny Lynn." The people who knew to call it a Cape Island boat had ancestors from Ireland, from Scotland's Highlands and from the Tories fleeing the thirteen colonies after the American Revolution left them unfavorably disenfranchised from England.

The most important room in the house, for the fact of its belonging to the most important person in the house and of its being the most disordered room in the house, was his father's room. The repository of old cigarettes and volumes of magazines and books to read (both being the enemy of the narrator's mother), no one went into the father's room unless given permission. And when someone by some misguided fancy thought of cleaning it, or at least of getting rid of the cigarette litter, they soon were captured by the words of the volumes' pages--volumes like David Copperfield--until the mother forcibly put an end to it (in the end, her intervention doing no good). It was also home to the "woollen sweaters, mitts and socks which [the] mother knitted for him." The narrator's mother "despised the room and all it stood for and ... despised disorder ... [and] had not read a book since high school."

The father disapprove of the "daughters of the house" playing by the wharf, but this was a point of contention because the mother, a woman of the sea, said, "'Nothing will happen to them there" or "They could be doing worse things in worse places.'" After disobediently reading books in the father's room, the daughters "grew restless" and soon began to work "as waitresses at the Sea Food Restaurant ... [that] catered to the tourists" from Boston, the wealthy tourists from Boston. Despising "the whole operation," the mother protested that that lot were not "our people."

In another point of conflict between father and mother because of the vacationer crowd, she expected they'd get "knocked up," and he was irate that she'd suggest it. The narrator, unseen on the porch, wondered if his father "would kill [his] mother while [he] stood there ... [with] three foolish mackerel in [his] hand." The daughters would talk to the father in his room late on "hot summer nights," their voices "blending with the music from his radio into a mysterious vapour-like sound floating softly up the stairs" to where the mother waited with exasperating questions.

The mother's daughters married Boston vacationers. The mother didn't understand. The men did no physical work. She couldn't see where their earnings came from: their earnings didn't come from "the boat." She "had each of her daughters for fifteen years, then lost them for two [years] and finally forever. None married a fisherman." In the end, she stopped caring because the men were "not of her people ... not of her sea." The mother and father age noticeably, and there are "only three" in the house, now empty but for them. When the narrator was fifteen, his father took to his bed with illness.

May first opens the fishing season and, with the father in bed beginning in January, they are far behind on their preparations, like knitting "lobster trap headings" from sharp twine, even with the mother's fisherman brother helping (he with twelve children). In a state of worry and uncertainty because the boat would not be ready "with her gear and two men," the narrator said "good-bye" to his schooling and to David Copperfield and The Tempest. Yet, his father sat up in his sick-bed to ask--not tell--him to go back to school the day after he quit school. A great conflict emerged from this because the mother, following her son out to porch the next morning, in her hatred of all but the sea said:

"I never thought a son of mine would choose useless books over the parents that gave him life."

Miraculously, the boat and the gear and the men were ready and the Jenny Lynn painted "by the last two weeks of April .... On the first day of May the boats raced out as they had always done. [...] And at night my mother asked, 'Well, how did things go in the boat today?'" The narrator's father had never wanted to be a fisherman; he had wanted to go to university. The narrator dismissed his father's saying this as something absurd, like wanting to do tightrope walking. The narrator learns to believe that it "was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations."

He resolves to forever protect his father against the "iron-tipped harpoons which [his] mother would forever hurl into his soul because he was a failure as a husband and a father who had retained none of his own [for the sea]." As his father's room piles high with books and more books and pictures of "small red-headed grandchildren and baseball bats"--grandchildren who, to the mother's wistful sorrow, would "never know the sea in hate or in love"--he promises to stay with his father "as long as he lived" and to "fish the sea together."

Fishing through the autumn and into early winter, the boy now at the tiller, "in the place and manner of [his] uncle," the father withstood the snow, salt and ice freezing his eyelids shut and stood in the stern. But on November twenty-first, on what seemed to be the last run of the winter, the narrator looked toward the stern and his father was not there, and he "knew even in that instant that he never would be again." Even if the fierce Atlantic winter storm waves would allow for turning around for a search, even if the "burden" so lost over the stern would stay in the spot it fell rather than go a mile or more away, his father, in "the final irony ... cannot swim a stroke." After this, no one from near or far can fish those waters. Buoys are mysteriously cut if they try. Gear is mysteriously destroyed if any try. To his mother and others, "the [fishing] grounds are sacred and they think" the fishing grounds wait for the narrator to return to them to fish them.

The mother is alone with no husband, no son, no son-in-law who walks from the house to the boats nor from the boats to the house. She "looks on the sea with love and on [the narrator] with bitterness." The father was found on November twenty-eighth "ten miles to the north. ... There was not much left of [his] father, physically, as he lay there with the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair." In a jolting realization, we understand, as did the narrator back on November twenty-eighth, brass chains hold "such a burden" down, deep down, and it seemed as before that the "bracelets of brass chain which he wore to protect his wrists from chafing seemed abnormally large...."

Interview with Alistair MacLeod, William Baer, Michigan Quarterly Review

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