Alistair MacLeod Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.