Alistair MacLeod (muh-KLOWD) is generally considered one of Canada’s finest prose writers. He was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where his father, Alexander MacLeod, and his mother, Christena MacLellan MacLeod, had relocated during the Depression. Alistair was still young when the MacLeods returned to their native Cape Breton Island and the family farm. Alistair MacLeod grew up in a large, extended family, whose members clung to their island and held to their Highland Scots traditions. Family, place, and heritage are basic values in all of MacLeod’s works.
After graduating from high school, MacLeod earned a certificate from Nova Scotia Teachers’ College and taught for a year on Port Hood Island, near Cape Breton. He left to attend St. Francis-Xavier University in Antigonish; in 1960 he graduated with both a B.A. and a B.Ed. The following year, MacLeod earned an M.A. from the University of New Brunswick. He was already interested in the short-story genre; his thesis was on Canadian short fiction in the 1930’s.
Although for some time MacLeod had been writing poetry and short fiction and in 1961 had a story published, his primary objective was a career in academics. After two years as an English instructor at Nova Scotia Teachers’ College, he moved to the United States and entered the University of Notre Dame. In 1968 he was awarded his doctorate. Again, he had focused on the short-story genre; his dissertation dealt with Thomas Hardy’s collection A Group of Noble Dames.
In 1969 MacLeod joined the faculty at the University of Windsor, Ontario, where he would remain permanently, teaching English and creative writing. In 1971, he married Anita MacLellar, a Cape Breton native. They had six children. Throughout the years, the MacLeods spent their summers on Cape Breton, in a house that once belonged to the author’s great-grandfather.
Soon MacLeod’s stories and poems began appearing in literary periodicals. However, MacLeod admits that he writes very slowly. It was ten years before his first collection appeared, and it contained just seven stories. In his second, which was published ten years later, there were seven more. His third volume was made up of ten stories from the previous books, along with one new story, “Island.”
It was MacLeod’s best-selling first novel, No Great Mischief, that brought him worldwide recognition. In 2001, No Great Mischief won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The novel was followed by Island: The Complete Stories, which was in fact a selection of previously published short fiction, along with one new story, “Clearances.” This volume made MacLeod’s short stories available to his many new readers.
Even though MacLeod’s themes and techniques place him outside the mainstream of contemporary fiction, critics find much to admire in his work. Not only does his beautifully crafted fiction capture the essence of a unique place and its people, it also speaks unsentimentally but honestly of such universal values as courage, loyalty, and faith.
Creelman, David. “‘Hoping to Strike Some Sort of Solidarity’: The Shifting Fictions of Alistair MacLeod.” Studies in Canadian Literature 24, no. 2 (1999): 79-99. Argues that over the years MacLeod’s outlook has become increasingly conservative; in the later stories, a traditional society is shown not as an enemy of freedom but as a valuable stabilizing force. A thoughtful study.
Eichler, Leah. “Alistair MacLeod of Scotsmen in Canada.” Publishers Weekly 247, no. 17 (April 24, 2000): 54-55. A valuable biographical and critical essay, prompted by the success of MacLeod’s first novel. Quotations from an interview contain material not available elsewhere.
Hannan, Jim. “Alistair MacLeod: Island: The Complete Stories.” World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (Winter, 2002): 147-148. Points out the tensions in MacLeod’s stories between the urge to communicate and the inability to do so. Insightful.
Jensen, Hal. “Red Calum’s Clan.” Times Literary Supplement 5080 (August 11, 2000): 22. A perceptive review of No Great Mischief. While the theme of the novel is the importance of blood ties, its subject is storytelling. Praises MacLeod for his brilliant use of imagery.
Wood, James. “Clearances.” New Republic 224, no. 4509 (June 18, 2001): 31-35. Points out the dominant characteristics of MacLeod’s short fiction and contrasts his works with typical American short stories. A balanced appraisal.