Alistair MacLeod Essay - Critical Essays

MacLeod, Alistair


Alistair MacLeod 1936-

Canadian short story writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of MacLeod's career through 2001.

The author of a body of work that comprises only sixteen short stories and one novel, MacLeod is considered by many as one of the most accomplished prose writers in Canada. His fiction spotlights the Gaelic heritage and rural values of the descendants of Highland Scots who settled the maritime provinces of eastern Canada more than two hundred years ago. MacLeod's writing typically relates the physical, psychological, and emotional rigors experienced by the mining and fishing communities of Nova Scotia, as they struggle to survive harsh natural environments and foreboding occupational hazards. Favoring first-person narratives, MacLeod emphasizes the power of the past to affect the present, often depicting the educated descendants of Scottish-Canadian miners and fishermen who either abandon their impoverished homes in Nova Scotia for the modern mainland or, having become alienated in their new urban surroundings, return to their forsaken families and Gaelic traditions.

Biographical Information

Born in 1936 at North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada, MacLeod is the son of natives of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. As a young boy he and his family returned to Nova Scotia where he grew up in a close-knit maritime community and worked in the mining, farming, and logging industries. After completing high school, MacLeod earned a certificate from the Nova Scotia Teachers' College and began a one-year term as a schoolteacher on Port Hood Island, near Cape Breton. Between 1957 and 1960 MacLeod attended St. Francis-Xavier University in Antigonish, where he received his B.A. and B.Ed. degrees, earning his master's degree in 1961 at the University of New Brunswick. In 1960 he returned to Nova Scotia Teachers' College and taught English until 1963. From 1966 to 1969 he lived in the United States, teaching English at the University of Indiana while studying at the University of Notre Dame for his doctorate degree, which he received in 1968. In 1969 MacLeod accepted a faculty position at the University of Windsor, Ontario. That same year he began publishing poems and short stories in literary periodicals. In 1976 he released his first collection of short stories The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. His next collection, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, was published ten years later in 1986. Since the 1980s MacLeod's short fiction has been consistently anthologized in such prestigious publications as Best American Short Stories and Best Canadian Short Stories. In 2000 MacLeod released his first novel, No Great Mischief, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001. MacLeod has continued to teach English and creative writing at the University of Windsor, Ontario, while editing fiction for the University of Windsor Review.

Major Works

Each of the seven stories in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are narrated by a young man at a crossroads in his life. “The Boat” follows a protagonist who must decide whether to stay home and become a fisherman like his father, or to leave home to pursue a white-collar job at a university. “The Golden Gift of Grey,” “The Return,” and “In the Fall” all center around inexperienced men who strive to take control of their destinies, but find that family ties, history, and traditions have already shaped their fates. In “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” the narrator returns to the small Newfoundland village where his illegitimate son lives to determine whether he should take the child back to the city with him, or leave the boy behind with his loving grandparents. “The Road to Rankin's Point” concerns a twenty-six-year-old man with leukemia who returns to Nova Scotia to live out his last days. Moving into his grandmother's house, he attempts to reconnect with his family heritage. As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories is also comprised of a series of seven short stories. In “The Closing Down of Summer,” the narrator contemplates his life on the evening before he leaves for South Africa to work in the diamond mines. “Winter Dog” and “To Every Thing There Is a Season” both revolve around the Christmas season and the protagonists' memories of their childhood. “The Tuning of Perfection” features Archibald, a septuagenarian singer of traditional Highland songs, who is offered the chance to sing on television. When the producers ask him to change the content of his songs, Archibald must choose between popular recognition and the traditions of his ancestors. The plot of the title story, “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” is infused with mysticism and maritime folklore, describing a family whose fates and fortunes are intertwined with the life of their dog. In 1988 MacLeod published The Lost Salt Gift of Blood: New & Selected Stories, which contains four stories from the original collection, six stories from As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, and one new story titled “Island.” Featuring a female protagonist—a first for MacLeod—“Island” recounts the narrator's unusual life utilizing flashbacks and foreshadowing. No Great Mischief, MacLeod's first and only novel to date, concerns an orthodontist, who narrates the history of his family from the late 1700s to present day. He has chosen to live in southern Ontario, far away from his birthplace in Nova Scotia, but his memories and experiences—combined with his family history—show the undeniable forces that hold him to his Cape Breton heritage. Island: The Complete Stories (2001), a comprehensive anthology of MacLeod's previously published stories, also introduces a new story titled “Clearances.” The story focuses on an elderly widower who reminisces about his life, his marriage, and his experiences in World War II.

Critical Reception

Many reviewers have compared MacLeod's narrative techniques with the short fiction of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Thomas Hardy, variously citing his use of local color, realism, and predetermination as some of his most prevalent plot devices and themes. Critics have also applauded MacLeod's lyrical use of the historical past, a narrative technique in which past events are described in the present tense to convey the immediacy of cultural and personal memory. While occasionally faulting his stories as overwritten, reviewers have praised MacLeod's authentic, unsentimental portrayal of the cultural decline of Nova Scotia, which he links in a larger sense to his perception of a loss of traditional Canadian values. Frederick Busch has remarked that, in MacLeod's works, “honest emotion is as sensually rendered as the blood, salt, and waterlogged wood of Cape Breton. … every word feels true.” While many Canadian critics have enthusiastically identified MacLeod as one of the best contemporary Canadian writers of short fiction since the beginning of his career, he remained relatively unknown to most American readers until the late 1980s. His short fiction has since found a widespread international audience, attracting considerable critical acclaim and scholarly attention.

Principal Works

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (short stories) 1976

As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (short stories) 1986

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood: New & Selected Stories (short stories) 1988

No Great Mischief (novel) 2000

Island: The Complete Stories (short stories) 2001


Colin Nicholson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Nicholson, Colin. “‘The Tuning of Memory’: Alistair MacLeod's Short Stories.” Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Americaines 20 (1987): 85-93.

[In the following essay, Nicholson analyzes the intertextual relationship between past and present, self and other, and memory and self-identity in the protagonists of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.]

On February 25th, 1986, in Edinburgh, Paul Ricoeur delivered as the fifth of his Gifford Lectures On Selfhood: The Question of Personal Identity, a paper which he called “Narrative Identity.” The lecture considered the temporal dimensions of the self, and although my own antennae were attuned in particular ways by...

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John Ditsky (essay date February 1988)

SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “‘Such Meticulous Brightness’: The Fiction of Alistair MacLeod.” Hollins Critic 25, no. 1 (February 1988): 1-9.

[In the following essay, Ditsky examines The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, assessing their themes, style, and narrative techniques.]

Alistair MacLeod (b. 1935) is a writer of fiction who is also a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor (Ontario). Much of his early life was spent in Canada's Maritime provinces, specifically Nova Scotia, to which he returns as often as possible to devote the attention to his writing that his...

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Alistair MacLeod and Laurie Kruk (interview date 1995)

SOURCE: MacLeod, Alistair, and Laurie Kruk. “Alistair MacLeod: The World Is Full of Exiles.” Studies in Canadian Literature 20, no. 1 (1995): 150-59.

[In the following interview, MacLeod discusses the appeal of the short story genre, his literary influences, and various aspects of particular stories.]

[Kruk]: I had planned to ask you about the appeal of the short story, and if you think you'll want to write in any other form, but I believe you are starting to do so.

[MacLeod]: That's what I'm doing right now: trying to write a novel. It's called No Great Mischief If They Fall.

Do you find writing it...

(The entire section is 3876 words.)

David Creelman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Creelman, David. “‘Hoping to Strike Some Sort of Solidity’: The Shifting Fictions of Alistair MacLeod.” Studies in Canadian Literature 24, no. 2 (1999): 79-99.

[In the following essay, Creelman contrasts the style and themes of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood with As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, examining the ideological basis of each collection.]

In the last thirty years, short story writers from the Maritimes have been winning increasingly wide recognition for their work. Collections of short fiction by Elizabeth Brewster, Carol Bruneau, Sheldon Currie, Leo McKay, Alden Nowlan, David Adams Richards, and Budge Wilson—to name...

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Susan Knutson (review date winter 2000)

SOURCE: Knutson, Susan. Review of No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod. University of Toronto Quarterly 70, no. 1 (winter 2000): 190-92.

[In the following excerpt, Knutson highlights the historical significance of the rivalry between Scotch- and French-Canadians in No Great Mischief.]

Alistair MacLeod is by no means the first Canadian author to interest himself in the historical play between the Highlanders and the French in Canada. From Philippe Aubert de Gaspé to Margaret Laurence to Catharine Parr Traill, Canadian authors have given us fictional Highlanders and French Canadians whose union—or whose failure to unite—prefigures the birth of the Canadian...

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Kathleen Venema (review date February 2000)

SOURCE: Venema, Kathleen. “MacLeod's Repetition Is Numbing, Not Haunting.” Canadian Forum (February 2000): 42-3.

[In the following review, Venema offers a negative assessment of No Great Mischief, faulting its weak characterization and repetitious structure.]

Alistair MacLeod's two collections of short stories, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), have earned him much-deserved praise as one of Canada's great, if largely unknown, writers. Traditional in both style and subject matter, MacLeod's thematically complex stories explore familial relationships as they are shaped by numinous Celtic myth and the...

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Alistair MacLeod and Leah Eichler (interview date 24 April 2000)

SOURCE: MacLeod, Alistair, and Leah Eichler. “Alistair MacLeod: Of Scotsmen in Canada.” Publishers Weekly 247, no. 17 (24 April 2000): 54-5.

[In the following interview, Eichler focuses on No Great Mischief, situating the novel within the context of MacLeod's life and career, with commentary from the author.]

Even before Alistair MacLeod's first novel, No Great Mischief, was released in Canada last year, the story of its origins had made its way into the annals of publishing folklore.

According to legend, McClelland & Stewart's publisher, Douglas Gibson—impatient after waiting 13 years for a first novel by MacLeod, an...

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Ron Charles (review date 15 June 2000)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “The Strong Branches of a Scottish Family.” Christian Science Monitor (15 June 2000): 17.

[In the following review, Charles applauds MacLeod's achievement in No Great Mischief, outlining the novel's narrative structure.]

Modern life is a careless archivist. The ways we used to record ourselves have been replaced by convenient cheats. Flimsy videotape has superseded the more secure photo album. Ephemeral e-mail threatens to erase letters that survived for centuries. To complicate matters, education and employment constantly split even the most cohesive families.

Against such ravages, Alistair MacLeod's new novel, No...

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Hal Jensen (review date 11 August 2000)

SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Red Calum's Clan.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5080 (11 August 2000): 22.

[In the following review, Jensen explores the imagery and storytelling techniques of No Great Mischief, summarizing the plot and characters of the novel.]

No Great Mischief is a lesson in the art of storytelling. Not only does it show by example (which it does magnificently), but its subject is the way stories work, the sources of their power and the means by which they are kept alive. The novel's theme is blood ties. Alexander MacDonald, an orthodontist in Ontario, is provoked by a visit to his brother Calum (bruiser, ex-con, penniless alcoholic) into...

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Andrew Hiscock (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Hiscock, Andrew. “‘This Inherited Life’: Alistair MacLeod and the Ends of History.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35, no. 2 (fall 2000): 51-70.

[In the following essay, Hiscock examines how MacLeod subverts the tenets of literary postmodernism in his fiction with respect to the significance of personal and communal metanarratives and their relation to self-identity.]

I was interested [in “The Boat”] in the idea of choice, of the price we all have to pay for the choices that we make; in the idea that sometimes people choose to do things that they don't want to do at all, somewhat like the father in that story. This is a man...

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James Wood (review date 18 June 2001)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Clearances.” New Republic 224, no. 4509 (18 June 2001): 31-5.

[In the following review, Wood discusses the principal characteristics of MacLeod's fiction in Island: The Complete Stories, contrasting them to the prevailing modes of American short story writing.]

A mystery, a glow of unrecognizability, hangs over the work of Alistair MacLeod. A Canadian in his mid-sixties from Cape Breton, the nakedest finger of the Nova Scotia peninsula, he has been writing stories since at least 1968, with patient intermittence; only sixteen are collected in this book [Island: The Complete Stories]. That he is still widely unknown in the United...

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Further Reading


Carpenter, Dave. “Writing Home.” Canadian Literature 129 (summer 1991): 152-54.

Carpenter evaluates the thematic and stylistic accomplishments of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood: New & Selected Stories, focusing on the postmodern appeal of MacLeod's imagery.

Davidson, Arnold E. “As Birds Bring Forth the Story: The Elusive Art of Alistair MacLeod.” Canadian Literature 119 (winter 1988): 32-42.

Davidson explicates the themes of various stories in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun in terms of MacLeod's narrative method.

Demont, John....

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