Alistair MacLeod

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Colin Nicholson (essay date 1987)

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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 the work I had been doing on Alistair MacLeod's short narratives, I was nonetheless surprised at the ways in which the lecture seemed to address itself directly and in some detail to the concerns of MacLeod's fiction. “What is it,” Ricoeur asked, “that assures the identity of the self throughout the history that unfolds between birth and death? How can the permanence and change of the personality be reconciled?” He went on to suggest that within the framework of language, the temporal dimension of life is narrative; a live history thereby becomes a narrative history. By identifying itself with what Ricoeur termed the figuration of character, the self acquires a concrete identity, refigured by the mediation of narrative: a narrative identity. Both the autobiographical mode of many of MacLeod's short stories and their insistent seeking out of a present-tense registration for affective memory give point and shade and definition to Ricoeur's speculations. MacLeod constructs a deeply historicised discourse in which self and other endlessly merge, diverge and recombine.

Reviewing the seven stories which comprise MacLeod's first collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood1, Matt Cohen remarked “… these people earn their living, and it is not a very good one, in semi-suicidal conditions: mines filled with rats, dampness, the possibility of collapse or explosion; or fishing in waters which have become polluted or fished-out with the passing of time. And so the young people dream of escape, while their parents and grandparents hope they will stay on—to support them—but also hope they will leave—to find an easier life for themselves …”2 It is an acute summary, and one which takes us back to Ricoeur and forward to the techniques which MacLeod develops to give experiential voice to the historical environment and regional contours of his native Nova Scotia. We can trace in this slender volume the processes of growing up in and away from a delimiting and economically determined childhood. But they are determinations which also lend substance to self-definition. As the stories compose a meditation upon time and identity, lines from Eliot's Four Quartets provide a persuasive gloss:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.(3)

We will watch the burden of those lines recur, but meanwhile we can note that one of the seeming constancies in the changing emotional landscape of these stories is a use of the child as focaliser for narrative event. The first, “In the Fall,” narrated by James, a boy of almost fourteen, charts the violent eruption of difference into a hitherto ordered and orderly, if harsh, existence when necessity demands the selling of a loved but economically burdensome and sickly horse. Rude intrusions of monetary actuality mark a decisive shift out of childhood as...

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memory and desire now begin to mix differently: “And I think I begin to understand for the first time how difficult and perhaps how fearful it is to be an adult and I am suddenly and selfishly afraid not only for myself now but for what it seems I am to be” (p. 25). Typical of MacLeod's use of grammatical precision4, the boy's growing sense of self-awareness projects itself as a wider movement in the shift from “I” to “you” as the narrator describes his difficult way back into the house. Then, referring to his ten-year-old brother, the final sentence gestures ambiguously towards a future promise. “I think I will try to find David, that perhaps he may understand” (p. 30).

“The Vastness of the Dark” figures an eighteen-year-old, discovering that mere physical journeying out from childhood environs brings no guarantee of release or escape. Memories of a coal-mining family history and his own extra-marital conception within it are the mental and emotional freight he must always carry with him. In “The Return,” a ten-year-old is the focalising agent in an uneasy revisiting of his father's family origins. And eighteen, too, is the age of the conscience-stricken, pool-playing schoolboy, presented in the third-person, in “The Golden Gift of Grey.” Learning that parental habits and beliefs are more resilient than he had anticipated, he learns also that an ambiguous grey offers relaxation from a tight parental coding of moral black and white which his own preferred experience is already guiltily destabilising. While the remaining three stories centre upon first-person adult narration, in each case a past is continually recoiling. Plots construct emotional returns to earlier events whose effects resonate within and thereby structure an unsettled and unsettling present. In these tales, the child is father of the man in calculated and disturbing ways.

In the much-anthologised story “The Boat,” this trajectory of feeling produces a narrative which offers itself as a paradigm of MacLeod's favoured techniques. Already resonating with the possibility that this child may also have become author of the father's death as well as his textual reincarnation, the disconcerting now in which the narrative voice awakens to begin its story, sets a contextual immediacy for the shaping operations of a preterite existence which everywhere disrupts, infiltrates and defines the parameters of narrative contemporaneity. This is a presented voice so thoroughly imbued by past relationships that it appears inseparable from the recalled experience to which it gives utterance. Memory is everywhere pre-text as the “I” which speaks in the now of our reading brings us to participant awareness of a complex, shared formation.

There are times even now, when I awake at four o'clock in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs or that the shorebound men are tossing pebbles against my window while blowing their hands and stomping their feet impatiently on the frozen steadfast earth. There are times when I am half out of bed and fumbling for socks and mumbling for words before I realize that I am foolishly alone, that no one waits at the base of the stairs and no boat rides restlessly in the waters by the pier.

(p. 129)

This image of the fishermen at his window is to surface on two subsequent occasions: the first when the narrator recalls that his father “would make no attempt to wake me himself” (p. 146), the last when he imagines his now isolated mother still listening to “the rubber boots of the men scrunch upon the gravel as they pass beside her house on their way down to the wharf. And she knows that the footsteps never stop, because no man goes from her house, and she alone of all the Lynns has neither son nor son-in-law that walks towards the boat that will take him to the sea. And it is not an easy thing to know that your mother looks upon the sea with love and on you with bitterness because the one has been so constant and the other so untrue” (p. 150).

“The Boat”'s second paragraph continues to register the present of the remembering adult, noticing “the grey corpses of the overflowing ashtray beside my bed” (p. 129). This too prescribes a later memory, from earlier days, of his father's bedside table: “a deck of cigarette papers and an overflowing ashtray cluttered its surface” (p. 134). The word overflowing connects remembered images, and “surface” in the second, further prefigures the father's dying. As for Eliot's persona, so for our narrator:

It seems, as one becomes older
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development

(p. 186)

The comforting attempt by our narrator to separate himself from these initial footfalls in the memory—“they are only shadows and echoes, the animals a child's hands make on the wall by lamplight, and the voices from the rain barrel; the cuttings from an old movie made in the black and white of long ago” (p. 130), is deconstructed by the very discourse in which the attempt is embedded. As the phrase “long ago” leads, in the following paragraph, into the story's first and momentary deployment of the past tense, we discover that this past will not be so easily located in a fixed and knowable time and space. The opening act of waking up leads on now to a narrative reconstruction of the boy's dawning consciousness.

His first memory of his father is sensuous; aromatic and tactile, whereas “my earliest recollection of my mother is of being alone with her in the mornings while my father was away in the boat” (p. 131). Moreover, the boat is named Jenny Lynn, his mother's maiden name, “as another link in the chain of tradition” (p. 132), and that image itself links forward to “the bracelets of brass chain which my father wore to protect his wrists from chafing” (p. 141). So a father's prior entrapment in a life of work to which he is not even bodily suited is signalled by a recurrence of the same image. “The chafe-preventing bracelets of brass linked chain that all the men wore about their wrists in early spring were his the full season” (p. 146). With the story's concluding image, the father's corpse crumbling in the hands of our remembering narrator, an image which returns us to the nightmarish beginning, we see this lasting enchainment. “There was not much left of my father, physically, as he lay there with the brass chains on his wrist and the seaweed in his hair” (p. 151). In its mental transfigurations, of course, the dead father always already haunts the narrative. The structure of the plot is the patterning of recall, and this sense of an ending forms a continuing present in which there is no terminal situation. Eliot again seems relevant to the reader's encounter, where

—the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started,
And know the place for the first time

(p. 197)

With perhaps this qualification; that in Alistair MacLeod's fiction there seems to be no identifiable first time, and all narrative unfoldings are themselves preterite, pre-scribings of sequences which are always already pre-texts for the ongoing act of imaginative memory.

From his mother the boy learns more than is immediately apparent. “When my father returned about noon, she would ask, ‘Well, how did things go in the boat today?’ It was the first question I remember asking: ‘Well, how did things go in the boat today?’ ‘Well, how did things go in the boat today?’” (p. 131). As one of the text's many unspoken reverberations, the reader is left to realise who asked the question on the father's last day, and how, and by whom it was, and continues to be answered. These silent registrations of the text are voluble. But the mother asks another question, this time in hostile tones, of the tourist visitors to Nova Scotia from a world beyond her literal horizons; tourists who take her daughters away, to a world which thus threatens her hard-earned security. “‘Who are these people anyway?’ she would ask, tossing back her dark hair, ‘and what do they, though they go about with their cameras for a hundred years, know about the way it is here, and what do they care about me and mine, and why should I care about them?’” (p. 137). It is a question which the narrative persona turns back upon his own people, exploring his and their motivations and desires. In the telling of his tale, he opens his and their lives and ambitions to the wider world of experience in which the boy, his sisters and his father have either sought to participate, or have joined.

But that joining is also a separation, and in the world of these stories it becomes apparent that nothing can be left behind. Language is left to achieve whatever duplicitous constancies it may. When, in “The Boat,” the boy who has since become a university lecturer promises his father to “remain with him as long as he lived and they would fish the sea together,” his father “only smiled through the cigarette smoke that wreathed his bed and replied, ‘I hope you will remember what you've said’” (p. 147). During that last fateful fishing season, the boy's mother had said “you have given added years to his life” (p. 148). These things linger in the recall of one who must go on living with the very real possibility that his father's death by drowning was a wilful act to accomplish the boy's release from a world of work which the father experienced as relentless and unsatisfying. Again, the boy's hopeless attempt in a stormy sea to mount a rescue operation for his drowned father by turning the boat “in a wide and stupid circle” (p. 149) conjures, in tragic reprise, his father's manoeuvre during the infant boy's first sailing in a calm enclosure—“in the harbour we made our little circle and returned” (p. 131).

What might register as random contingency in existential encounter, exhibits iterative structure in recall. Knowing this, the narrator must accept opposing senses: of uncertainty in lived experience, and patterned inevitability in narrative reconstruction. For “The Boat” itself encodes a narrative response, if you like an answerable discourse, to the father's voice which had sung “the wild and haunting Gaelic war songs of those spattered Highland ancestors he had never seen” (p. 140). That voice had in turn wrought transforming effects for the retaining narrative consciousness: “when his voice ceased, the savage melancholy of three hundred years seemed to hang over the peaceful harbour” (p. 140). The melancholy survives in the son's narration.

Such bardic intimations of mortality figure also in the stories of MacLeod's second collection, to be published next month, and called As Birds Bring Forth the Sun.5 Its opening story, “The Closing Down of Summer,” seems in many ways to articulate, directly and alternatively, with “The Boat.” Spoken this time by a miner called MacKinnon, leader of what he proudly boasts is “perhaps the best crew of shaft and development miners in the world” (p. 2), it brings into different focus aspects of emotional self-definition which play beneath the surface of the earlier story. Characterised again by a narrative commitment to the present tense, “The Closing Down of Summer” excavates modes of constancy against which autobiographical change might be measured.

The youth in “The Boat,” who does what his father desires but cannot accomplish, leave fishing for a university education, finds intertextual response in a young man who leaves university after only one year “spent mainly as an athlete and as a casual reader of English literature” (p. 15), to become the miner he now is. As in “The Boat,” encounters with literary texts prove to be sharply double-edged pleasures. In that story, the young boy read Great Expectations and discussed David Copperfield with his father, provoking self-reflexive comparisons between MacLeod's narrator and those of Dickens. In “The Boat,” too, the choice of “useless books over the parents that gave him life” (p. 144) leaves our narrator with the forlorn wish “that the two things I loved so dearly did not exclude each other in a manner that was so blunt and too clear” (p. 145). He remains troubled by the knowledge that “the grounds my father fished were those his father fished before him and there were others before and before and before” (p. 149), and that to those who remain behind, those fishing grounds “are sacred and they think they wait for me” (p. 150).

Differently, and then similarly, in “The Closing Down of Summer,” university is soon abandoned by a narrator impressed “by the fact that I was from a mining family that has given itself for generations to the darkened earth” (p. 15):

I was aware of the ultimate irony of my choice. Aware of how contradictory it seemed that someone who was bothered by confinement should choose to spend his working days in the most confined spaces. Yet the difference seems to be that when we work we are never still. Never merely entombed like the prisoner in the passive darkness of his solitary confinement. For we are always expanding the perimeters of our seeming incarceration. We are always moving downward or inward or forward or in the driving of our raises even upward.

(p. 15)

Referring to the comparatively banal existence of his estranged wife's entrapment in the conventional world of commodity-fetishism, MacKinnon says “she has perhaps gone as deeply into that life as I have into the life of the shafts, seeming to tunnel ever downward and outward through unknown depths and distances and to become lost and separated and unavailable for communication … Perhaps we are but becoming our previous generation” (p. 10). This subterranean metaphor undergoes further mutation when MacKinnon ponders the possible significations of a mining gang travelling the world, “liberating resources” (p. 16) and then moving on, leaving the mines to be developed by other workers underground, producing the profits from which social structures are built. These societies are in turn subjected to all kinds of political transformations, through all of which “Renco Development on Bay Street” will wait for the miners “who would find such booty” (p. 16).

If the act of mining develops metaphorically into a narrative enigma, the words “constant” and “constancy” compose an iterative figuration as lexical ikons. The topography of textuality itself becomes the subject of narrating memory's excavations. Inscriptions of mortality recur; durable on tombstones, “reading the dates of our brothers and uncles and cousins” (p. 5), and in “the yellow telegram … permanent in the starkness of its message” (p. 7), or else transiently with the telephone call which “seems somehow to fade with the passing of time” (p. 7), yet which survives in memory. All of these become texts to be read, signs to be deciphered. MacKinnon recognises that he is looking for “patterns older than memory” (p. 8) and striving simultaneously for an articulate equivalence to the eloquent and satisfying physicality of working in the mines. Facing the frequency of violent deaths in mineshafts the world over, it may seem natural that MacKinnon's miners “have perhaps gone back to the Gaelic songs because they are so constant and unchanging and speak to us as the privately familiar” (p. 11). But even this comes to symbolise an entombed activity, “lacking in communication” (p. 11). Their professional appearances as MacKinnon's Miners' Chorus eventually become “as lonely and irrelevant as it was meaningless. It was as if we were parodies of ourselves, standing in rows, wearing our miners' gear, or being asked to shave and wear suits, being plied with rum while waiting for our turn on the program, only then to mouth our songs to batteries of tape recorders and to people who did not understand them” (p. 11).

MacKinnon tries to read meaning in the art of Zulu dancing which he had seen in the Africa to which he is about to return, and does indeed feel some kinship with it. But “their dancing,” he is forced to concede, “speaks a language whose true meaning will elude me forever. I will never grasp the full impact of the subtleties and nuances that are spoken by the small head gesture or the flashing fleck of muscle” (pp. 11-12). He sees, though, connections between his watching the Zulus and his miners singing to a dwindling band of comprehending listeners. The sense of narrative foreboding which pervades our text seems to owe as much to MacKinnon's keen perception that the culture from which he sprang is itself fading as it does to any sense of impending personal jeopardy. And his disgruntlement at the inefficacy of language leads to this, where the limits of his words are felt as the limit of his world: “We have sentenced ourselves to enclosures so that we might feel the giddy joy of breaking through. Always hopeful of breaking through we know we will never break free” (p. 16). The contending possibilities of Gaelic and of English as surviving systems of communication are compared with the lot of a French-Canadian mining gang who “will not go to Africa for Renco Development because they are imprisoned in the depths of their language” (pp. 16-17).

As they leave the beach on which they have been “lying now in the embers of summer's heat and in the stillness of its time” (p. 5), another sign of evanescence is read upon the sand. “Our footprints of brief moments before already have been washed away. There remains no evidence that we have ever been. It is as if we have never lain, nor ever walked nor ever thought what thoughts we had. We leave no art or mark behind. The sea has washed its sand slate clean” (p. 18). And given the density of Gaelic reference in this and other stories, and their signifying function as a historic system of registration, it becomes difficult not to be aware of a further referential curve. Vanishing traces on a shoreline here conjure associations with those clearances elsewhere, equally determined by the economic motivations of others, when people were herded to the sea's edge and translated from Highlands and Islands on the western fringe of Europe to this easternmost island landfall on Canada's Atlantic coast. A gathering sense of peripheral impermanence seems in both cases to be an appropriate structure of feeling. Certainly there is a painful contour in these stories of dispossession and emotional deracination. Gracefully transformed in a memorably written present, it aches nonetheless.

MacLeod's art ensures his own compromised survival. Linguistic and cultural continuity is an autobiographical problematic for the author himself. He belongs to the first generation of Cape Bretoners not to be brought up as native speakers of Gaelic. His literary accomplishment in giving line and form to the people of Nova Scotia is disconcerted by the fact that his mastery of English literary discourse itself marks a process of change and slippage from historic origins. So it is hardly surprising that the echoing resonances with characterise his writing prevent any easy assimilation into the present which his stories adumbrate. At the end of “The Closing Down of Summer” the imbrication of time past and time present achieves a different kind of intertextual configuration and the nature of textuality is again foregrounded.

More than a quarter of a century ago in my single year at university, I stumbled across an anonymous lyric from the fifteenth century. Last night while packing my clothes, I encountered it again, this time in the literature text of my eldest daughter. The book was very different from the one I had so casually used, as different perhaps as is my daughter from me. Yet the lyric was exactly the same. It had not changed at all. It comes to me now in this speeding car as the Gaelic choruses rise around me. I do not particularly welcome it or want it and indeed I had almost forgotten it. Yet it enters now regardless of my wants or wishes, much as one might see out of the corner of the eye an old acquaintance one has no wish to see at all. It comes again unbidden and unexpected and imperfectly remembered. It seems borne up by the mounting, surging Gaelic voices like the flecked white foam on the surge of the towering, breaking wave. Different yet similar, and similar yet different, and in its time unable to deny:

I wend to death, Knight stith in stour;
Through fight in field I won the flower;
No fights me taught the death to quell—
I wend to death, sooth I you tell.
I wend to death, a king iwis;
What helpes honour or worlde's bliss?
Death is to man the final way—
I wende to be clad in clay.

(p. 36)

Across five hundred years, an elegising lyric speaks its own perception of present ending. But it, too, is textually complicated. The source for these verses is a Latin poem in thirty-four distiches printed from a thirteenth-century manuscript6. Not only is literary textuality thus historicised, its mode of existence is further compromised in the now of MacKinnon's remembrance. When he read the lines in his daughter's literature text, “the lyric was exactly the same.” But as it returns again, “unbidden and unexpected and imperfectly remembered,” it changes in crucial respects. First written on scrolls, this present tense lyric was composed in four quatrains. In a deconstructive turn our narrator ruptures the enclosure of this text by reproducing only two quatrains from the original. He then, in the uncertain recuperation of his memory inserts the word ‘final’ where the original produced ‘kynde’:

Death is to man the kynde way
I wende to be clad in clay.

“Kynde” means natural, and signifies an acceptance very different from MacKinnon's own. The “patterns older than memory” for which he searches, are traced in the discourse which presents him. But it is a kind of discourse which resists closure. No longer positing the consolation of permanence, the literary text offers, rather, the discursive possibility of intertextual relationships: relationships which demonstrably modulate with changing time and circumstance. There is no still point in its turning world. In Alistair MacLeod's writing, our past is recuperated in a continuous present: uncertain, jeopardised even, but open still, and still possible.


  1. Alistair MacLeod. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text.

  2. Matt Cohen. Edmonton Journal, March 6th, 1976.

  3. T. S. Eliot. Four Quarters, in The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot. London: Faber & Faber, 1969, p. 182. Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text.

  4. Simone Vauthier gives a detailed account of this precision in her analysis of a single story, “Notes sur l'emploi du Présent dans ‘The Road to Rankin's Point’ d'Alistair MacLeod,” in RANAM, XIV, 1983, pp. 143-158.

  5. Alistair MacLeod. As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986. Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text.

  6. Carleton Brown. Lyrics of the Fifteenth Century, Oxford: O.V.P., 1939, pp. 248-249, and note 157, p. 340.

John Ditsky (essay date February 1988)

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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 duties as a full-time university teacher and family man often will not allow him. Many of MacLeod's stories are set in these same Maritimes; moreover, all but one of them is placed somewhere in Canada, where he has over the past few decades established a considerable reputation for himself on the basis of only two rich volumes of seven short stories apiece. However, he has also been anthologized outside of Canada, and not merely in prize-story collections; as a result, academics and students in the United States and elsewhere have begun to respect the output of this slow and careful worker (he has published about one story per year on the average) whose first American-issued collection should be in print sometime around the appearance of this survey. With fiction both old and new about to reach a much larger audience, then, it seems appropriate to devote some time to at least a rudimentary critical assessment of Alistair MacLeod's work to date.

MacLeod's two collections are entitled The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986). These draw upon the worlds of MacLeod's direct personal experience—usually by means of the involvement of his own labor—coal mining, farming, fishing, teaching. Moreover, they present us with characters typical of MacLeod's own ethnic stock or that predominate in his own neglected and (these days) often economically depressed corner of the earth and the sea: Scots and Irish Celts, often still speakers of Gaelic; and Canadians of other origins, such as the descendants of the Loyalists who fled the new United States rather than renounce allegiance to the British monarchy. Perhaps it is inappropriate to talk here of influences upon MacLeod's writing, particularly foreign ones; but since it is characteristic of those of his characters who have done some reading to make comparisons between “real-life” situations and those in books, one might then fairly mention that Hemingway is one of the writers so cited. And the sense of clan and of the clan in history in his stories, one might go on to observe, cannot but remind the reader of the handling of such matters—and in general, the use of Time—in the fiction of William Faulkner who, after all, was writing about people of much the same origins, albeit in a far-removed locale.

Perhaps it is ironic that MacLeod's fiction is to be first published in book form in the U.S. by the Ontario Review Press run by Joyce Carol Oates and her husband Ray Smith, when one considers the disparity between the prolific Oates—often absurdly disparaged for just that trait—and the comparatively plodding MacLeod, Oates's onetime University of Windsor colleague. Likely, she simply appreciates the distinctive qualities of MacLeod's stories, which include a sense of pacing—and of having no sort of hurry whatever about the need to get things said—that in its quasi-stateliness is almost in a way like the product of a prior century, as well as a clarity and simplicity of expression which may, as noted above, be the result of the influence of Hemingway or, even more likely, be the Canadian-English equivalent of the way things are put in Highland Scots Gaelic. At any rate, one notes in MacLeod's work the employment of a kind of floating present tense within which past and future become merely logical accommodations, together with a relative absence of contracted forms which lends itself to the feeling of having time enough to say which was mentioned above. Beginning with the last story in the initial collection, “The Road to Rankin's Point,” moreover, there is an increased use of what grammarians would term the “sentence fragment” for a deliberately induced concision of expression, something familiar in a more mannered form from the novels of J. P. Donleavy. These formal qualities make for an often-startling seeming irruption into a “timeless” text of an apparent anachronism from the present day, but the latter is usually simply the result of the hypnotic efficacy of the former. MacLeod presents us with a traditional way of life which, whatever its response to the pressures of the present age to scatter and assimilate, nevertheless maintains as a way of responding to an often harsh, brutal, and violent existence a hedge in the form of rites of passage which seem to illuminate, even as they do not quite dispel, the workings of a dour Celtic sensibility which finds patterns of fatality and doom in all.

Alistair MacLeod is also a poet, but few poems can outdo his fictions for the sheer loveliness of his presentations of a sometimes-hostile Nature, and the candid acceptance with which he takes in Nature's harder truths. The ability to combine both stark candor and sensibility to sheer beauty is often characteristic of the male characters in MacLeod's stories (which is not to say that his females lack them, either), and in this respect he is something of an anomaly among writers of fiction in North America, especially the United States. In the lead story in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, “In the Fall” (which has been fairly successfully filmed in Canada), the sensitive males outnumber the pragmatic female—within the family context—by three to one. But the latter is not without sympathy, given her attempt to impose a managed order on a difficult sort of existence. In a Maritime setting, a farmer who winters as a coal miner is seen worrying about a “him” who turns out to be a horse he has rescued from mine work; “the man” and “the horse” are bound together in terms of the mutual existence they have been saved from. The horse's loyalty is recounted in a narrative about a time when the man became drunk on a winter's night, and the horse faithfully waited for him. This of course does not impress the wife, with six children to care for. She does not worry over living by selling capons for cash, the trading of animal for human life by which the family earns its existence. A neighbor boy undercuts the father's sensibility as something he “feels … because he is Scottish, and … Scotsmen are never any good at raising poultry or flowers because they think such tasks are for women and that they make a man ashamed.” The neighbor is a Dutch lad, who might well mistake “poultry or flowers” as mere commodities, but he is wholly wrong about the father's affection for the ailing horse. The narration's steady present tense is briefly abdicated for a time when the father leads the trusting horse into a knacker's truck, and there is a remembering of times when the horse led the father. As the mother had wanted, the “useless” horse is driven away and the family's younger son vents his fury at this betrayal upon his mother's cash-crop capons. Against the backdrop of an oblivious Nature, the narrator sees his parents reconciled to a mutual sacrificial loss in a scene suddenly sexual in its implications:

I stop and turn my face from the wind and look back the way I have come. My parents are there, blown together behind me. They are not moving, either, only trying to hold their place. They have turned sideways to the wind and are facing and leaning into each other with their shoulders touching, like the end-timbers of a gabled roof. My father puts his arms around my mother's waist and she does not remove them as I have always seen her do. Instead she reaches up and removes the combs of coral from the heaviness of her hair. I have never seen her hair in all its length before and it stretches out now almost parallel to the earth, its shining blackness whipped by the wind and glistening like the snow that settles and melts upon it. It surrounds and engulfs my father's head and he buries his face within its heavy darkness, and draws my mother closer toward him. …

“The Vastness of the Dark” is another present-tense story told by a young man setting out from home in search of better opportunity than what his depleted mine-country community can offer. The darkness of the title extends to the carefully-described mining experience, the boy's father's drunkenness, the mother's future prospects, and even the mental state of the boy who realizes on leaving that his freedom to leave is a dubious one at best: that he will never be wholly free of his origins. Somewhat “explained” towards the ending, the story is deftly concluded on a note of commonality. The writer's observance of local speech extends to that of the boy's grandmother, who takes the news of his departure calmly with “It is just as well. There is nothing for one to do here anyway. There was never anything for one to do here.” The narrator calls this “the Gaelic inflection of her youth and … that detached third-person form which I had long ago suggested that she modernize.”

But the pulls toward and against “modernization,” and the notion that past and present can be smoothly reconciled through candor, are not so easily dealt with. In the collection's title story, “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” the narrator drives into a Newfoundland harbor village, lovingly described; he falls in with one of a group of young boys out fishing, and is invited to visit the home of the boy by the young person's grandfather. Restless at night, the narrator yearns to enter another room where, we suddenly are let know, lies his “one son sleeping.” The transitions from reflections on the son's room to the dead girl who used to sleep there and to the folk belief that presumably played a part in their affair are superb instances of narration by implication, and the reader is led to understand the price the narrator paid when he decided to leave his lover behind to resume his career at a distant university.

Bittersweet is the contrast between the narrator's receiving the gift of a sea-polished stone from his lost son, whom he cannot bear to dislodge from his Newfoundland milieu, and the selfish question asked by a stranger's son at an airport stop: “What did you bring me?” “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” is a story best praised by simply urging it upon a larger readership.

“The Return” is a memory story, also first-person, of a boy journeying with his parents from the prim environment of his mother-dominated Montreal household to the rougher world his father once knew—the mining country of Cape Breton Island. Here again, it is the boy's father who proves the more sensitive parent, and the story consists of a remarkable series of introductions to the earthy ways of the local menfolk, including the witnessing of the mating of a bull and cow, as well as the grimy honorary investiture of the boy (by his grandfather) in the fellowship of the miners. “We have come from a great distance and have a long way now to go,” the story concludes; and only the speaker—and the reader—know exactly how much longer that journey has become. Another rite-of-passage story is “The Golden Gift of Grey,” unusual among MacLeod's fictions in being set in northern Indiana among displaced Kentuckians (MacLeod's final degree is from Notre Dame, and he taught for some time in Indiana). Essentially, however, it parallels the Canadian stories: the Kentuckians are country-mannered former miners; and the young man who is the protagonist is being drawn by education into a “higher” mode of existence. But when he is given the answer to a dilemma about what to do with the parent-rejected earnings of his secret vice (shades of East of Eden!)—playing pool—by another Kentuckian, a father-figure, he also receives a lesson in the sorts of compromises over absolutes his new existence will require of him: the ambiguous bequest of the title.

In “The Boat,” the sheer number of references to the vessel of the title suggest that an ambiguity of meanings is again in the works; indeed, an ambiguity of the values of certain gifts is also again being adumbrated. The narrator is yet another son reminiscing about his Nova Scotia past. The boy's father had slept alone in a room he kept in a messy state, but he displayed his finer nature in his capacity for reading—fisherman by trade though he was. The mother, fine-featured, was also religious and practical, by way of contrast. There is a fine portrait of the father in his fishing boat—which requires a helper to crew—enjoying himself by giving tourists a ride and later drinking with them and singing for them Scots songs from both sides of the Atlantic, some of them ancient. When the young man decides that his place is on the boat with his father, the father makes it clear that he thinks his son should go off to school; but the son stays determined and his mother later comments that the son has added “years to his life.” Yet after a season of fishing together, the father suddenly disappears overboard on the very day the season normally comes to a close. Is it an accident or a willed death? Whatever the case, it frees the young man to go off to university and change his life. In the story's final paragraph, the description of the sea-changed body of the father is an extraordinary one (and note the equivocal quality of the word physically):

But neither is it easy to know that your father was found on November twenty-eighth, ten miles to the north and wedged between two boulders and the base of the rock-strewn cliffs where he had been hurled and slammed so many many times. His hands were shredded ribbons as were his feet which had lost their boots to the suction of the sea, and his shoulders came apart in our hands when we tried to move him from the rocks. And the fish had eaten his testicles and the gulls had pecked out his eyes and the white-green stubble of his whiskers had continued to grow in death, like the grass on graves, upon the purple, bloated mass that was his face. There was not much left of my father, physically, as he lay there with the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair.

The final story in this first collection, “The Road to Rankin's Point,” finds a young man—only the reader and his grandmother find out that he is doomed to die young, presumably of leukemia—driving up a road very different from the one going in the other direction—the one which leads to the major centers of the continent—for this road leads to a rough patch of land that is his family's ancestral home, where his grandmother (the subject of her family's concern) now lives out her old age. (The grandfather had died much earlier on this same road in an accidental fall while coming home drunk.) When the family arrives en masse from the country down below, there is a general festivity at the relief caused by the news that young Calum will stay behind and live with his failing grandmother, and there is a singing of old Highland songs that the grandmother joins in by playing her violin; the narrator contrasts this music with what the grandmother's descendants are gyrating to at the Toronto end of the road. The narrator defines his grandmother's role in his family's development in terms of strength—a strength summed up in a saying of hers the first sentence of which MacLeod himself is apt to repeat more than once a day: “No one has ever said that life is to be easy. Only that it is to be lived.” The story has characters speak of having prophetic gifts, and the narrator lies in his bed later wishing to take on more of the history of his clan; suddenly he hears his grandmother's dogs on the road above bewailing her death on the same day she had played the old tunes which still beset his mind so that he cannot tell whether the music is within him or without, just as the darkness outside and inside him “reach to become as one.” MacLeod's first collection closes with this narrative of invigorating beauty.

A full decade later, MacLeod released his second assemblage of seven tales. But the first story to appear in it actually dates from the year of the earlier volume. “The Closing Down of Summer” is another piece derived from MacLeod's knowledge of the world of mining: its narrator is a central figure in a group of shaft miners enjoying a last bit of seaside summer sun on a Nova Scotia shore from which they must soon depart for work wherever their company sends them—South Africa, say. Another present-tense story, it is also another instance of a narrative poised on the verge of enormous change; as time ticks by and the day winds to a close, the narrator's unhurried voice lulls the reader like the August sun. And yet that voice also presents the often horrific details of life below ground, as well as its speaker's growing sense of isolation from a domestic life he seldom participates in. Death seems to wait for the narrator and his colleagues to rise up from the beach where their bodies' imprints are quickly effaced by the waves; yet the world his wife bustles about in seems an uncomprehending polar opposite: “Little about me or about my work is clean or orderly and I am always mildly amazed to find the earnings of the violence and dirt in which I make my living converted into such meticulous brightness.” The process is reminiscent of MacLeod's fiction generally, if not of course in quite this sense; and if MacLeod allows his speaker's single year of university to account perhaps for his articulateness, that fact also allows for a certain irony to inhere in the narrator's compulsion “to tell … something of the way my years pass by on the route to my inevitable death”—to speak of “beauty of motion on the edge of violence, which by its very nature can never long endure.” Hemingway again, perhaps; but the narrator also admires the passion he has noted in the singing and dancing of the Zulus, something missing in his own aboveground existence. His university year experience comes back to end the story as his associates pass the moonshine around and drive westward toward futures both uncertain and yet somehow certain; he recalls a medieval poem the last lines of which are “Death is to man the final way— / I wende to be clad in clay.”

The two stories which follow concern Christmas. “Winter Dog” has the thoughts of its narrator, while watching his children romp with a neighbor's dog in the pre-dawn on a day before Christmas (in present time, and in a place like MacLeod's present Windsor, Ontario), move backwards to an experience that could be superficially termed a Londonesque adventure yarn—a boy's being saved from drowning off an ice floe by a big dog useless for other labor—were it not for the presence here of another meditation on death. There is a possibility of having to drive east because a family member is dying; the weather is bad. “Should we be drawn by death, we well might meet our own. Still, it is only because I am alive that I can even consider such possibilities.” The irony of the story's scenario, then, is that one dog, in reminding the speaker of another in the distant past, also brings to mind the way a life has been saved in order to have it deal with death another day. The second story, “To Every Thing There Is a Season,” also presents a superficial appearance—that of a newspaper Christmas story, short as it is (and indeed that is how it made its print debut); it is told as the memory of a boy who, old enough to disbelieve in Santa Claus, is made to stay up with the adults to take part in the gift-bringing of an older sailor brother. But though he is old enough to understand about Santa Claus, the boy does not at that time realize the meaning of what his father, who seems to be dying of consumption, means at the story's ending: “‘Every man moves on,’ says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, ‘but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.’”

“Second Spring” presents, with a calm factualness about animal births and deaths, the reminiscence of someone who in youth had belonged to a “calf club,” the purpose of which was to have each member breed and raise his own calf. The story's details of farm life's realities are closely observed and establish an atmosphere in which the young man's cow, Morag, is mounted and inseminated by a Faulknerian neighborhood bull who simply walks through fences when the breeding urge is on him. The resulting astonishment at the uncontrollable power of Nature of all concerned, reader included, is neatly conveyed by the narrator's revelation of how he deserted calf-breeding for baseball, at which “In my small area of the earth it seemed that everything was under my control.” At the other end of the age spectrum is Archibald in “The Tuning of Perfection,” a 78-year-old Cape Breton singer of traditional songs (his people came from the Isle of Skye) who has been “discovered” by folklorists and now has been offered a chance to appear on TV with members of his family, who join the show's producer in urging him to compromise the authenticity of his performances in order to suit the requirements of the medium. But Archibald, who usually expresses dubiety in the face of the assaults of the questionable with a noncommittal “Mmmm,” stands firm, particularly after having a dream visit from his dead wife singing. The story neatly parallels Archibald's integrity with the fiercely independent ways of the eagles who nest in the vicinity, and it ends with an acknowledgement of Archibald's stature by a party of drunken singers.

The past is also crucial in a very different way to the title story of the collection, “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun.” Not until well into the story do we learn that its beginnings, originally purposely vaguely indicated, are in the nineteenth century; and even then, the reader may be unsure whether the setting is Scotland or the Maritimes. This folk-tale quality is emphasized by the narrational texture; here, for example, is the story's opening paragraph:

Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond. She was large and grey, a sort of staghound from another time. And if she jumped up to lick his face, which she loved to do, her paws would jolt against his shoulders with such force that she would come close to knocking him down and he would be forced to take two or three backward steps before he could regain his balance. And he himself was not a small man, being slightly over six feet and perhaps one hundred and eighty pounds.

This self-consciously narrational stance creates both a sense of timelessness and also a suspension of reader disbelief; against both of these, subsequent scenes such as that of the breeding of the big grey dog (referred to throughout the rest of the story by the Gaelic equivalent) and the violent death of the man himself at the teeth and claws of the dog's six offspring stand out in relief all the more shocking for being couched in such ostensible gentleness. This extraordinary story, which traces the history of a family haunted by a fatalistic belief in its own doom, finds its ending in a modern hospital setting where, the narrator speculates, circumstances may once again become confused with causes—the apparent meaning of the evocative title. MacLeod, in reading “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” in live performance, confirms the reader's impressions of this tale by delivering it in an almost incantatory, quasi-bardic manner that serves to heighten its unforgettable impact.

If “Birds” possesses a Faulknerian power of the grotesque to instill awe, the volume's final and longest item, “Vision,” displays genuine Faulknerian complexity of narrational mosaic in moving the reader through a familial saga taking generations to come clear—if that is the word to use in describing a story so complicatedly exploitive of the many meanings suggested by its title. As in “The Road to Rankin's Point,” second sight is referred to; and as with “The Closing Down of Summer,” the narrator feels compelled to speak, having himself become his narrative—or rather, having had it become him. Like the narrator, the reader is forced to accommodate himself to inadequate information; he is introduced to the narrator's fisherman father early on, for example, but he does not learn that the father is blind until thirty pages later, though there are clues in the narrative if one knew enough to watch for them. A nautical landmark, the point of Canna, sets the father to telling his son a story within the outer story, and soon there are layers and layers of history to cope with and make something of a single account out of. The father, as a young man, and his brother set out to visit their grandparents, but by mistake they are taken to the house of a strange old woman whom they eventually realize is blind, but whom they cannot as yet “recognize” to be their actual grandmother. When they encounter their grandfather, they do not know him at first—though what they find him up to in the barn is a clue, if they could spot it, to the excess sexuality that is responsible for their existence. Like Archibald's “Mmmm,” a mild “Oh” appears repeatedly in this story to indicate an insufficiency of response to a meaningful matter—casualness, uncertainty, evasiveness. MacLeod carefully arms the reader with information that will be needed later on: for instance, that in the past the poor local residents would think nothing out of the ordinary about eating lobster sandwiches does not strike one as anything but curious when first mentioned, but twenty pages later it is required knowledge at a point where explanation would prove intrusive; and the blind old lady's odd reference to her dogs as “twins” makes sense another twenty pages later when it is revealed that she had once given birth to twins, one of whom died. A question by the blind woman—in Gaelic—to her onetime lover, “Who's there?,” is answered finally, “It is myself”; but not until the question returns to consciousness in a way that saves the father's life (though he loses his sight) in combat during World War II does the father, now a grown man, start to reap the fruit of understanding of the question's full implications. (And another blinding, ironically, brings an end to clan feuding.) This magnificent story is in its very structure ample proof of how “forever difficult [it is] to see and understand the tangled twisted strands of love.” That is to say: the “tangled twisted strands” of narrative are turned to binding rope by the reader's acknowledgement of the power of love.

A new story, “Island,” as yet unpublished, is to be included in the Ontario Review Press edition of MacLeod's work, and it has been read in manuscript form for this survey. As the absence of an article in the title implies, the theme of the narrative is that of isolation, in particular the emotional aloneness of Agnes MacPhedran, the last of a family which for years has tended a lighthouse on a coastal island which has gradually acquired their name. While she is still young, she meets and is attracted to a red-haired fisherman who understands her loneliness “as if he were reading her mind.” He goes away but returns (“I told you I'd come back”) and asks her to marry him; she assents and they speak of going “somewhere else” to live. Her response to all these promises of change is largely a matter of “Oh yes” that becomes simply “Oh” as they make love in a shanty away from her parents' purview, and “Oh” is all she says on hearing her father's offhand mention of the death of that red-haired young man in a lumbering accident. Of course, she is pregnant; and she leaves the daughter she bears with her aunt, on the mainland. She herself shortly becomes solely responsible for the lighthouse, and there is a striking later scene in which she gives herself to a party of mackerel fishermen she has helped take advantage of a spawning run—this at the spot where she had declared her love for the red-haired man. Passing years are telescoped into a few pages of narrative during which the woman becomes thought of as a local eccentric, and finally—after she learns that the government will no longer require that the lighthouse be manually cared for—a young red-haired fellow appears at her door, eventually identifying himself as her grandson from Toronto. He promises to return, and when he does, he is in appearance and manner of arriving and speech a duplicate of her long-dead lover. He takes her to his borrowed boat, saying it is time they went to “live somewhere else.” The eerie narrative, a culmination of MacLeod's apparent fascination with folk belief in the occult, concludes with the fatal finality of a folk tale:

A dog barked once. And when the light revolved, its solitary beam found no MacPhedrans on the island or the sea.

In its length, “Island” resembles “Vision”; and the writer is apparently at work on a novella. These developments can only fuel curiosity about new developments in MacLeod's art at what might be a crucial point in his career. What is “crucial” includes not just possible changes in MacLeod's approach to fictional forms, however; it involves the point with which this survey began: MacLeod's arrival within the awareness of an even greater readership. Of course, that process has long since begun: Simone Vauthier of the Université de Strasbourg has written two entire papers on “The Road to Rankin's Point” alone—one in French, on the use of the present tense, and the other in English, on the concepts of time and space employed in the story; and Arnold E. Davidson of Michigan State University has intelligently discussed the role of “displacement, substitution, and elision” in the second collection. Nor has MacLeod been without honor in his own country. Ken MacKinnon, in a review, has cited the major theme of MacLeod's work to be “the long homeward journey from exile.” Other Canadian reviewers have simply praised MacLeod's craft, so low-keyed at first encounter that its efficacy may elude the hasty reader. That craft, they have usually noted, is centered upon an emotional quotient almost unbearable in some of MacLeod's stories—were it not for the steady voice that keeps excess response at bay. But as MacLeod has said in a newspaper interview, “I think most art begins in the emotional part of man.” Readers of his stories will not be surprised to find that one area of MacLeod's academic interests is the fiction of Thomas Hardy; and they may also find that MacKinnon's characterization of MacLeod's central theme acquires extra resonance when MacLeod is paralleled with Hardy. Questions of resemblances aside, however, one is left agreeing with the many Canadian reviewers who have called MacLeod one of the finest Canadian practitioners of the short story form presently writing. Though MacLeod would doubtless be pleased with such a description, his new audience—noting the universality inherent in the literary means by which he has exploited the emotional resources of his native region—may well question the need to include the proper adjective.

Alistair MacLeod and Laurie Kruk (interview date 1995)

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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 more difficult than writing short stories?

I find it different in that you've got to sustain a storyline for a long time, and history shifts as you're working on a novel. I think one of the advantages of the short story is, it's something like a hundred-yard dash. … When you're dealing with a novel, you have to balance everything, you have to wonder if what you were saying two years ago is as relevant, in the present moment, as it was when you began. It's sort of like a long walk—like walking to Montreal, that's how I think of it. I've been working on it now for about five years.

What does the title mean?

It's the statement that General James Wolfe, he who gave us Canada, made concerning Highland soldiers, at the siege of Québec. And the idea was, you put them in the front lines because they would be big and strong, and they would get up there first—

And take a lot of bullets. …

Yes. And if they didn't get up, it would be “no great mischief if they fell.”

So, what is the appeal, for you, of the short story form?

I think it's sort of an intense moment, and I don't know if I would compare it to the lyric poem, but it allows you to write a letter to the world. And I think it's constrained, and I think you can deal with two or three characters in a given situation, briefly, and succinctly, and I think it's a good thing to do. I don't know about comparing various forms of literature: there are obviously splendid poems that are worth more than bad novels, although one may be longer than the other, so I think that whatever you do in a literary manner, you should do to the best of your ability and probably just leave it at that.

One might argue that one may get more literary precision, perhaps, in some of those short stories that one finds in Joyce's Dubliners, as opposed to Finnegans Wake. And some of the D. H. Lawrence short stories are splendid as well. The point is that a “good” short story may, in the end, have as much “value” as a “long” novel. Length is not as important as quality, precision, accessibility, etcetera. Better to be “good” than merely “long.”

And what you're writing now—the novel—just demands a bigger canvas?

I think so. There are some things that you can accomplish in thirty pages, and some things you cannot accomplish in thirty pages. Actually, my short stories are generally fairly long short stories. If I have something to say, I just keep on until I've said it, and then that's the end. Length suits the “statement.” Then I try to get a string to put the beads on, so that I will have a necklace at the end, rather than beads rattling round in a box.

Very often, when I write stories, I write the concluding paragraph or line when I'm about half way through. And I find that this more or less helps me because I think: “This is the last thing I'm going to say to the reader—the last paragraph or the last sentence.” And this gives me a destination, and I think that you function better when you know whether you're going to Toronto or Toledo or Miami or whatever. …

Other writers have told me that short stories are not as well-received as novels—if not by critics, then perhaps by publishers. And yet you say you haven't come across this attitude yourself. You had no difficulty, it seems, getting your two collections published.

I think that The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) was the first collection of short stories that McClelland and Stewart put out that was not from someone who was also writing novels. I think Jack McClelland told me that at one time.

In the case of someone like myself, I make most of my income from teaching. So my response to that problem of marketing is, why don't I just make my work as strong as it can possibly be? But I think if you're trying to live by your pen, or by your word processor, or by whatever tool you're using, you are under different kinds of pressures. And in that case, if somebody said to you, “You should write a novel, because we can sell it easier,” you may say, “Okay, even though I don't like writing novels, I'll do this.” I think that maybe in my situation—I teach creative writing at the University of Windsor—I may have kind of an advantage. I'm allowed to do—within reason—whatever I want, in a literary way.

Who are the practitioners of the short story that you admire?

I admire a lot of people; I don't think I ever have anybody who's a model. … I think that what you try to do as a writer is try to develop a distinctive voice. And I think that one of the kind of wondrous things about literature is that no two voices are the same … you can't have clone writing, or why do it?

In one interview, you singled out William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor—

Those are splendid writers. Flannery O'Connor was a splendid writer. And I think it's nice to think of Flannery O'Connor as a writer who didn't write an awful lot, in terms of weighing the pages, or measuring them in a longitudinal manner, and who didn't have to write novels, but wrote splendid splendid stories.

And now, the obligatory question: which Canadian writers do you admire?

[pause] Oh, I hate doing this, because people are always going to phone up afterwards and say, “How come you didn't mention me?” [laughs] Well, Alice Munro is a very good writer. … And W. D. Valgardson; a story like “Bloodflowers” I think is almost the best short story ever written in Canada. And Guy Vanderhaeghe has some very very good short stories—

Do you think the short story is of particular interest to Canadian writers?

Well, it seems that very very good writing—some of the very best writing—is done by short story writers in Canada. But I don't know why that is so. The country's so tremendously huge—four thousand miles across—and the short story anthologies reflect that hugeness, I think: from Jack Hodgins to … perhaps to people like myself, from one coast to the other. And I think it must be almost accidental. … I mean the Canada Council didn't put us all in a room and say, “Now we want short stories from you people.” I think our excellence in short story writing evolved in the mysterious way that things do evolve.

I was wondering if you were especially interested in Scottish writers, given your Celtic roots?

Well, my work is very very popular in Scotland; I had a letter the other day from a man who wants to translate the stories into Gaelic, because he said they were the most Gaelic stories he knew. …

That's fascinating … and you said “Fine, go ahead?”

Oh sure. I think that once you write these pieces, there's no need being precious about them. And they've been widely translated … they've been translated into Urdu [the second language in Pakistan] and they've been translated into French, and they've been translated into Russian, and they've been translated into Norwegian, and so on. So I think it's nice to realize that well-crafted work can travel, you know, and that people can appreciate the work in Russia or Norway. It's very popular in Scandinavia, perhaps because Scandinavians inhabit the same kind of cold landscape, surrounded by water.

I'm quoting from an interview you did with Andrew Garrod. You said, “I'm interested in the idea of mistaking silence for lack of feeling or stupidity or something like that.” What do you mean by silence? And is this related in any way to men's silence?

In that interview with Garrod, we were talking at one point about professional athletes … people who are tremendously articulate, shall we say, with their bodies, but who, when they're interviewed, cannot describe what they do, although they can really do it. And that was what interested me when I was doing “The Closing Down of Summer.” (As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, 1986). If you're supposed to get up on a podium and talk articulately about being a basketball player—it seems to me that has nothing to do with being a basketball player, it's a whole other skill. And one of the things I was interested in was: if you're in a completely verbal situation—like interviews and so on—and you're not a verbal person, the fact that you're not a verbal person may be mistaken for lack of intelligence or lack of feeling. The reverse would be true if interviewers were put on a baseball field or a hockey rink; they may not do very well there. So what I was interested in, was just kind of exploring what it means to not be articulate—in the acceptable way.

I don't know if you know the Newfoundland novelist Percy Janes. He's got a novel called West Mall. And there's a scene in it in which the Newfoundlanders are getting ready to go to Toronto to look for work. And when they go for the interview, they start to perspire. … Because they've the wrong kind of accent. And it's like people who come from Poland, or whatever, and have the wrong kind of accent … these people are nearly all silent, unless they're speaking their own language.

So you're getting at that kind of colonizing impulse … which says, “If you're not like us, you're wrong”—?

Yes … or you may be perceived to be that way.

Your stories return our attention to the physical life, to the life of the body. And this life of the body is as longed for as the landscapes, and the cultural communities the protagonists leave behind. In “The Closing Down of Summer,” as you pointed out, there's a kind of longing. … I mean the narrator is still living this existence, but the mood the story creates is almost one of regret … at the fact that this is a passing way of life—

I'm not sure if that's true. It's a passing way of life; I'm not sure if he really regrets it, he's just thoughtful about it. The situation you've got here is a whole lot of people who encourage their children not to do what they do … and the children do not rebel against this advice, they accept it! What happens, as I say in the story, is that when children take that advice, they become alienated—from the men, in this case, who give the advice. And there may be a kind of sadness in that.

Also, I think what I was interested in is that people—be they male or female—people who lay their bodies on the line everyday, have a different risk factor than do I, as a university professor. These people who work in that way, ticking in the back of their minds, is the possibility that they may lose their lives, just doing what they do. Not because they're stupid, or not because they're careless or anything like that, but because this is what they do. And that adds a different dimension to their working lives. They are people who are risking their physical lives in their day-to-day occupations. I mean I may flop over from a heart attack at my desk, but they may flop over from a heart attack too. … So I was just kind of interested in that idea.

Yet it seemed in “The Closing Down of Summer” as if the protagonist were elevating the dangerous work he was doing, over what his sons were doing: jobs in law, dentistry, and so on.

No, I don't think so; I didn't mean that at all: I meant that their work would be different. They will go into different lives. “And what we're doing here”—that narrator says—“we're just using our bodies all the time, all the time, and our bodies are falling apart.” These people—who are going to go into law or dentistry—they're going to pay to join the squash club because they're going to want to use their bodies, in another way. … I guess I was kind of interested in the idea that maybe you have to use your bodies some way or the other … maybe there's a middle ground, maybe there isn't. As that narrator says, “They will join expensive clubs for the pleasures of perspiration; I'm not going to do that.” Nobody who works with their body ever jogs.

But what's interesting about the narrator of “The Closing Down of Summer” is that he does go to university … he starts university and then drops out.

Yes. Well, I see these people as big people, you know? Physically big people. And that's what they're given. Like the colour of your eyes … the colour of your skin. And because they're big people, they can do these things, because mines don't hire people who weigh ninety pounds. … I think what happens to that narrator, is that he feels university is not enough for him. You hear this from big people—

They're not comfortable in the classroom chairs—

No, not comfortable in the chairs, and the teacher's always looking at them because they're the first person that he/she sees, and so on. … So they kind of say, “I don't know if I'm made for this completely sedentary life. I can read the poems, I can write the papers, I can do this—but I just don't know if it's enough for me. So I'll go and do this instead.” And of course, he's got a history of mining, because it's what his family does. And so he goes and does that. High physical risk, that's kind of what I'm interested in.

I think the bottom line is: all writers write about what they care about. And they care about very different things. A good example, in Canada, is some of the writing that comes out of Québec, which is a kind of contained place. And Quebeckers have a history that is not a melting pot history. I think in Newfoundland you get this too—although they write in English—there's a kind of fierceness that grows out of their history. And this is very different, say, than generations of people who grew up in the mall, or somewhere like that, who do not feel fiercely about anything other than their record collection. …

“What do you worry about?” Here's an example: people in Canada worry about winter. There's a whole concern of big worries and little worries that run all across Canada. People trying to get their snow tires, trying to get their anti-freeze, trying to get their house winterized. Nobody worries about these things in Los Angeles. So I think your literature kind of comes out of what your concerns are—I don't mean worry being negative—but what do you think about when you wake up at half past five in the morning? You think about whether your car will start. …

“Winter Dog” (Birds [As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories]) opens with the worries about driving a long distance through the winter storm to see a dying relative.

Yes. I don't think that those worries or concerns are any better, or any worse, than the worries and concerns of people who live in the Southwest, like Arizona and New Mexico. But they are specific to a certain landscape. I think landscape just has an awful lot to do with all literature. I think Wuthering Heights couldn't have been written coming from any other landscape. …

Your point puts into question the whole “regionalist” label, because then every writer has their region … every writer has their landscape. Even if it's an urban landscape: Morley Callaghan writing about Toronto, or Mordechai Richler writing about Montreal.

Oh sure. Mordechai Richler writes about a certain area of Montreal—his region of Montreal.

Ken MacKinnon has said, “There is a sense in which all of MacLeod's work is more or less part of one great story with a single great theme: the long homeward journey from exile.” What do you think of that description, “the long homeward journey from exile”?

I think what he's finding in the stories is that sometimes people do things that they don't want to, and I think this is one of the central issues of that short story “The Boat” (The Lost Salt Gift of Blood) … that sometimes people choose to do what they do not want to do—perhaps out of love, or perhaps out of necessity, or whatever—and I think that's what MacKinnon was talking about. A lot of these characters are successful perhaps, but they feel exiled. They find themselves living their lives in places where they are perhaps not happy.

I think the world is full of exiles—you meet them all over the place—people who would really rather be back in Greece, back in the former Yugoslavia or wherever … but who are unable to be where their hearts might lie.

In both collections, you consistently adopt a male perspective. Is this conscious or unconscious?

Actually, in the story “Island” [published separately in a specialty edition by Thistledown Press in 1989], I have written from the female perspective. I just think about the story, and the question I ask myself is “Who gets to tell the story?” Because that changes everything. … For instance, my short story, “The Boat”: if the mother were to tell that story, it would be a very very different story.

So would you say your work is autobiographical?


Even though you're drawing on your Celtic roots, and your regional affiliation—?

Oh, the regions are there for everybody, but I'm not telling the story of my life. It seems very autobiographical, but I think it seems very autobiographical because I work hard to make it seem true. Sometimes people who've only read one story of mine, will come up and say “Oh it's too bad that you've lost your father.” My response to that is, “I didn't lose my father at all.” And they say, “Oh but I thought it must be true.” But I'm kind of glad to hear that, because I think that is what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to create an illusion of reality. So that when the Ancient Mariner tells his tale, it sounds pretty true. I think Alice Munro's phrase is “Not true but real, not real but true.”

But if you invent too much material, experiences that you can't get close to, that doesn't work either—

That's right, absolutely. The reader will find you out. But you can know things through other ways than experience. You can read things, and you can imagine things, but it has to have—I think—the ring of authenticity. You have to keep saying to the reader “Do you believe me?” And the reader has to keep saying, “Yes, I believe you; I'll turn the page.”

This makes it clear to me why the short story is so appealing to you; you are in some way tapping into folklore, oral story-telling. In “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” for instance, with the story of the grey dog … and the appeal to oral tradition in the opening. Even in “Vision” (Birds), there are all these folkloric stories about blindness—woven together in a much more intricate story—but still it has an oral quality, because of the various narrators telling tales within it—

Well, I'm kind of interested in that, because I know that story has obviously existed longer than literacy has … so there are all kinds of people who can tell stories, who can't read or write.

What I'm interested in with some of those folklore stories, and this is true in “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” too, is that what is folklore to some people is truth to others. … So I think of people who live their lives according to folklore as being somewhat similar—I don't mean this in any derogatory way—to people who live their lives by certain strict religious principles. So if you're outside that religion, you don't understand why people want to go to Mecca, or why people have certain dietary rules or why people wear certain clothes or anything like that: you just think of them as quaint. But inside the Muslim mind, they are not quaint; they are real. They say, “You may think that's funny, but we'll die for this. This is the way we live. This is who we are.”

What I was dealing with in “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” was this stupid man who goes into a culture that he doesn't understand, and runs around in it, trying to get his thesis finished. But he doesn't understand what he's collecting, because he's too dim, because he's there with his little blinders on. … I'm interested in the question, “What is it worth?” Grandma's old rocking chair may be an antique to somebody, and somebody else may throw it in the garbage, and buy a chair from K-Mart. …

Would you describe yourself as a realist writer?

Yes, I think so. What I think of, in terms of realistic writing, is: telling the truth as I happen to see it. I think Raymond Carver calls it “bringing the news.” I don't see myself doing “romantic” writing. I'm satisfied enough with realistic writing.

I would like to think that what I do will last, will stand the test of time. I look at people around me and I say, “Now this will last.” For example, the writing of David Adams Richards. What he's doing is “real” in that kind of tragic sense, somewhat similar to what Thomas Hardy did: people trying to live their lives in a certain place and a certain time. And in a hundred years, that work will just really really be standing. I think Sandra Birdsell's work will be standing. And you can say “What about the other hundred and sixty people—”

“That I haven't mentioned yet—”

—but those are two who come to mind. What I tell my writing students is, “You just do the best you can, and it will all find a home.” Write from the heart.

That's considered old-fashioned advice … but it still works—?

It has always worked.

David Creelman (essay date 1999)

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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 just a few—have received enthusiastic reviews and in some cases national recognition.1 But perhaps one of the best known and most carefully scrutinized writers of short fiction in the Maritimes is Alistair MacLeod. MacLeod's solid reputation is clearly not due to profuseness. Through the seventies and early eighties he averaged one story a year and has published only two collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986), each of which includes seven narratives. But if his output has been relatively small, the texts have been crafted so carefully that they have been greeted enthusiastically by critics. Twice his stories have been included in the prestigious anthology Best American Short Stories, and several of his texts, most notably “The Boat,” have been widely anthologized. While Maritime writers of short fiction have often been overlooked by the academic community, MacLeod's work has been examined in more than a dozen full-length critical articles. As tends to be the case when scholars examine collections of short stories, critics have adopted one of two approaches when exploring MacLeod's fiction. Some, like James Taylor and Simone Vauthier, have focussed on particular stories and examined MacLeod's imagery and symbolism, or his complex reshaping of space and time. Other critics, including Colin Nicholson, John Ditsky, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Francis Berces, have examined the body of work as a whole, and identified the formal tensions, thematic concerns, and philosophic issues that recur in the texts.

The broad overviews of MacLeod's narratives have generally been productive, for compared to some writers there is a surprising uniformity within his fiction. Nearly all of MacLeod's stories are related by or focalized through male narrators who either are young or are remembering a critical moment of their youth. These male protagonists are inevitably threatened by such deterministic forces as a daunting environment, economic hardship, chronic poverty, or cultural narrow-mindedness, and while the heroes are inevitably compelled to compromise their value system, they usually make decisions that establish their identities and set them, however tentatively, on their path into the future. This recurring exploration of a young individual's struggle within harsh circumstances validates Keefer's observation that, when compared to earlier Maritime writers whose optimism was evident throughout their texts, MacLeod is “closer to [Alden] Nowlan in his engagement with the inevitable, intolerable real, the poverty which defines his people” (182). And given the grim tone of MacLeod's fiction, it is not surprising that Arnold Davidson should argue that both collections are anchored in a “poetics of loss,” an aesthetic in which “displacement, substitution and elision … give these stories a characteristic elegiac tone … a present awareness of a past heritage of loss, a continuity, so to speak, of dispossession” (41).

But if MacLeod repeatedly examines similar themes and issues, it would be a mistake to assume that his two collections are built on the same philosophic or ideological paradigm. He consistently addresses questions of identity and examines the threatening power of external forces, but between the two collections there has been a distinct epistemological and political shift, which has yet to be examined. Compared to the persistent note of skepticism, doubt, and uncertainty which characterizes The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, the later stories in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories signal a clear and confident epistemological shift toward certainty. While such early fictions as “In the Fall,” “The Vastness of the Dark,” and “The Boat” focus on the lonely trials of isolated individuals who exercise their limited personal freedom to achieve only an incomplete sense of connection with their larger society, the more recent stories, “The Closing Down of Summer,” “The Tuning of Perfection,” “Second Spring,” and “Vision” concentrate on the ways in which individual protagonists are tied more firmly to a larger community.2 This later emphasis on communal structures is attended by a shift toward more conservative and patriarchal ideologies.

Throughout the early part of his career, MacLeod unwaveringly followed the tenets which govern the genre of realism. Given the insistence of post-structuralist thinkers that “reality” itself cannot be located in a stable exterior world, but rather is a constantly fluctuating construct of the dominant culture, we can no longer accept the notion developed by such critics as Rene Wellek that a “realist text” is primarily mimetic and strives to be a “truthful representation of the real world” (228). A “realist” text can never produce a truthful version of the “real world,” but rather becomes a reproduction of what the author and broader society perceive to be “real.” Thus, through particular formal devices, realism strives to achieve a surface appearance of objectivity, but it is, in fact, inherently tied to the ideological. Characterized in part by their traditionally clear and direct style, realist texts also typically assume that the individual subject operates within an objectively constant world, and that the subject is enmeshed in the contexts of history.3 Both of these assumptions resonate strongly in MacLeod's early stories. Given his initial interest in exploring the lonely struggles of individuals who achieve only an incomplete sense of connection to the larger world, it is not surprising that MacLeod should feel an affinity with a form which often foregrounds the integrity of the speaking subject by focusing on a single central protagonist in order to chronicle his or her maturation or development.

More importantly for MacLeod, realism is a form which is deeply embedded in the assumptions of historicism, as can be seen in the genre's overwhelming concern with tracing lines of cause and effect. Erich Auerbach argues that the emergence of German historicism “laid the aesthetic foundation for modern realism” by demonstrating that for the contemporary reader particular events become comprehensible only as they are seen to be partial links in a larger economic and historical chain (391). The realist text is created within this awareness of “the subsurface movement and the unfolding of historical forces,” and creates a credible portrait of the world by ensuring that the events and characters of the narrative are embedded in specific social and temporal contexts (391). The stories which form The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, in particular, are untroubled by even a shadow of the formulaic romance; each of the early stories is committed to tracing the relentless historical forces that press upon the complex, multi-dimensional protagonists, whose experiences and decisions are situated in a complex web of cause and effect. In these realist narratives an attempt is made to document how each event has its origins in a previous context—how each character's thoughts and actions are the result of that individual's past. Of course, MacLeod's realist texts can never provide a “truthful” record of history, any more than they can provide a complete and faithful reflection of reality, but nonetheless, the assumptions arising from historicism have had a deep impact on his early fictions.

In The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, MacLeod, as we shall see, attempts to articulate a liberal vision of individual freedom, but he is also intent on exploring the forces that threaten the individual.4 In the first collection, MacLeod fuses two branches of realist fiction as he blends a psychological realism—which attends to the inner lives of his emotionally and spiritually anxious protagonists—with a naturalistic tendency to explore and chronicle the impact of the environmental forces on the individual. Indeed, environmental conditions are at times so powerful that the texts almost suggest that individual freedom is subsumed in the numerous pressures of immediate circumstance: “His characters are critically vulnerable to if not determined by environmental conditions … and are well within reach of devastating economic poverty” (Berces 116). Many separate forces act upon MacLeod's heroes. Most immediately apparent is the harsh natural environment that daily threatens the fishers, miners, and farmers of Cape Breton. There is nothing in MacLeod's world that would echo Ernest Buckler's nostalgic hymns to an idealized natural landscape, or approach Charles Bruce's romanticized celebrations of the humane farmlands of the Channel Shore. Nature's ability to bend and warp the vulnerable human is evident in “The Boat,” as the narrator recalls the ocean's effect on his father's body:

My father did not tan—he never tanned—because of his reddish complexion, and the salt water irritated his skin as it had for sixty years. He burned and reburned over and over again and his lips still cracked so that they bled when he smiled, and his arms, especially the left, still broke out into the oozing salt-water boils as they had ever since as a child I had first watched him soaking and bathing them in a variety of ineffectual solutions.


MacLeod's narratives are populated with older characters, whose scarred bodies show visible signs of the world's harsh power (Berces 117). Hard labour as a stevedore has reshaped the body of James's father in “In the Fall,” so that his “left hand is larger than his right and his left arm is about three inches longer than normal” (8). Similarly, a mining accident maims the father in “The Vastness of the Dark,” “ripp[ing] the first two fingers from his scarred right hand” (25). And if the individuals are lucky enough to escape external scarring, the environment may exact an emotional or spiritual toll as numerous characters take to drink, or fly from their Cape Breton homes in a futile attempt to escape their fates. The environment is not demonized, but the natural world is unrelenting, dangerous, and devouring. The raging seas and unstable mines make manifest the force of chaos, which underlies nature's drive to assimilate and extinguish. As Berces astutely notes, “Two factors exerting constant nihilistic pressure are the proximity of most characters to survival conditions and, secondly, death itself, the final elemental darkness threatening to reduce all hopes to one uniform and meaningless conclusion” (Berces 116). The sense of hesitation and anxiety which characterizes the region's cultural landscape in the post-war era is crystallized in the difficult conditions which the settings establish.

As if the harsh environment were not enough to convince the reader that a sense of fatalism underpins these early stories, the protagonists are also keenly aware of the economic forces which shape or rule human choices. In the story “In the Fall,” James, David, and their father would like to save their faithful and loyal pony from the slaughterhouse. But the family's poverty not only forces the father to leave the island for long periods of time to work in Halifax, it also necessitates that they sacrifice any sentimental feelings for an animal which will “probably die in March after we've fed him all that time” (9). Economic pressures threaten to overwhelm MacLeod's characters and force them to read their lives as meaningless. Similarly, young James in “The Vastness of the Dark” is driven by his desire to be independent from his family, but the closure of the mines and the fact that “there was never anything for one to do here” necessitates his departure from Nova Scotia (37). Interestingly, MacLeod tends to represent the economic and the environmental forces in similar ways; they are viewed as inevitable, natural conditions beyond the sphere of influence of the local community. MacLeod's economic determinism is not accompanied by a politicized analysis of capital or class, and the texts would not fit comfortably into the genre of social realism that emerged in the early twentieth century. Certainly, MacLeod presents the miners, fishers, and farmers as figures with an inherent worth and dignity, but Marxist frameworks have little currency in his fiction. He is more interested in the workers as individuals than as representatives of the proletariat.

Even more powerful than the natural and economic forces are the cultural expectations that dictate the behaviours of the protagonists. Though James, in “The Vastness of the Dark,” attempts to sound “as off-hand as possible” when he declares “I think I'll go away today,” he has mistakenly accepted his father's claim that he is “free to go if you want to,” and completely underestimates the cultural ties which will bind him to his Gaelic, industrial, familial past. His grandfather accurately summarizes his rootedness in his culture, claiming, “Once you drink underground water it becomes a part of you like the blood a man puts into a woman” (39). By the story's end, James himself realizes that he cannot easily escape the history of his family, which has “somehow endured and given me the only life I know for all these eighteen years” (49). Even if he flees Cape Breton, he is carrying all the island with him as he goes. The tragic power these deterministic forces exert over each individual is most clearly evident in the character of the father in “The Boat.” Though he longed to go to university, and has spent his life exploring the “magazines and books [which] covered the bureau and competed with the clothes for domination of the chair” (110), his past work, his family ties, and his obligations as a father and husband chain him to a life for which he is personally unsuited. Unable to step beyond the role prescribed by his community, he accepts the binding power of his culture's gender and moral codes, and must endure the “iron-tipped harpoons” of scorn hurled by his wife. The best he can do is ensure that his children have the opportunity to escape their restrictive heritage, even if he is unable to slip those cords.

MacLeod traces the impact of various environmental forces, but even the temporal realm—made manifest as the weight of the past and the burden of the future—restricts the options available to the individual. Indeed, MacLeod's refusal to idealize the past further severs him from the vein of nostalgia that ran through many Maritime fictions in the early part of the twentieth century. In his overview of MacLeod's fiction, Nicholson mistakenly argues that in the first collection the temporal realm can be shaped by the individual subject: “In Alistair MacLeod's writing, our past is recuperated in a continuous present: uncertain, jeopardised even, but open still, and still possible” (Nicholson, “Turning” 93). Nicholson is correct to suggest that the past is always immediate and present to the self-conscious individual, but he underestimates the restrictive power of time. In “The Vastness of the Dark,” James realizes that he has been guilty of “oversimplification … through this long and burning day, but also through most of my yet young life” (49). This realization does not free James, as much as it leads him to submit to the cultural practices that constitute his past, and thus he joins a group of miners who are driving off to pursue the very occupation that James swore to leave behind. In “The Return,” the grandmother of a young boy visiting from Montreal thinks not in terms of her contemporary reality, but rather she feels bound to maintain the patterns established by the seven “generations” who precede her and remind her that “we can only stay forever if we stay right here” (79). The father of “The Boat” is able to translate his suffering into music and he becomes the expressive bard for his entire community, but as he sings the “laments and the wild and haunting Gaelic war songs” he not only evokes his own suffering, but he also feels connected to “the savage melancholy of three hundred years” (115). MacLeod's characters feel linked to the generations and eras past, but this “interfusing [of] past and present” tends to define and confine the protagonists, rather than enabling “an extension from concrete immediacy out towards timelessness” (Nicholson, “Signatures” 95).

The textual world constructed in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood is clearly hard, threatening, alienating, and meaningless, but MacLeod does not suggest that the human subject should therefore submit to these harsh forces and accept annihilation. MacLeod's early texts are ultimately driven by a strong ideological commitment to a liberal humanist vision of the independent individual. However bleak the conditions, the stories invariably describe a moment when the protagonists confront the forces that oppress them. Through their free choices and their reactions, they are able to defy their circumstances and secure a degree of personal integrity. Triumph is not an option, but the narratives do reproduce a hesitant and tentative hope. These moments celebrating the power of the individual will are brief, but they are an integral part of MacLeod's world view, and the pervasiveness of his conviction that individuals should oppose overwhelming circumstances is apparent when we examine his depiction of the characters who fail to resist the dehumanizing forces which threaten them. The villain in “In the Fall” is undoubtedly the drover, MacRae, who carries with him the “odour … of countless frightened animals that have been carried on the back of his truck” (13). He is a reprehensible character, not because he has come to collect the family's pony in the expectation of being able to turn him into “mink-feed,” but because he has so completely submitted himself to the raw and animalistic impulses of life. Driven by a crude mix of sexuality and violence, he “appreciatively” “runs his tongue over his lips “when he thinks about “horny little girls,” and later “savagely” beats the pony when it resists being lead to the slaughter house (15-17). MacRae is a cardboard character who stands as a warning of what could happen to any of the family members should they align themselves with the harsh rhythms of nature. The salesman who gives James a lift to Springhill in “The Vastness of the Dark” is a similarly corrupt figure. A racist and a sexual predator, the “very heavy man” who drives “the heavy red car” embodies the bestial nature of man as he seduces a lonely widow and eagerly “pump[s] away” even as she mournfully calls out for her “dead husband” (46). Completely divorced from the legacy of self-sacrifice, integrity, and honesty, which had been forged in times of disaster and remains as Nova Scotia's real heritage, the salesman's selfishness and sense of disconnection shocks James and makes him feel as if “this man has left footprints on a soul I did not even know that I possessed” (50).5

Not all the characters who fail to resist the deterministic forces that surround them are depicted as villains. Sometimes their lack of self-consciousness is simply represented as an example of existential “bad faith,” as they become figures who limit or hamper the interests or freedoms of the protagonists.6 The mother in “The Boat” has accepted the dictates of her culture as absolutes, and since she “was of the sea as were all her people, and her horizons were the very literal ones she scanned” she is vehemently opposed to any experience which would take her, or her family, beyond the limits of her fishing village. “Almost dehumanized by loyalty to a place which seems reduced to primal elements,” she sacrifices her emotional bond to her husband and her children, in her determination to remain committed to her heritage (Keefer 182). Such figures recur throughout MacLeod's early fiction and they become manifestations, albeit in reverse, of the writer's moral code and ideological perspective. MacLeod opposes any attempt by individuals to escape the hard choices presented to the self-aware individual by submitting to any of the various forces which sweep the textual world.

The essence of what it means to be a human being is, in MacLeod's texts, the ability of the individual to articulate and secure a sense of the self even as he or she recognizes the powerful forces that press from without and within. Identity is not just a matter of reinscribing the self into an enduring narrative, of turning a “live history” into a “narrative history” (Nicholson, “Turning” 85). The character must act, or at least attempt action, in order to establish a self. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood echoes the liberal humanist vision of the individual, but it is a vision shadowed by his acceptance that in a modernist condition, only a gesture toward the ideal of freedom may be possible. When the protagonists make these gestures toward freedom, the value of the moment is evident in MacLeod's insistence that it constitutes an instance of grace. Although he is not developing or advocating a particular theological framework, he views such moments of choice with a kind of awe: an awe felt in part because they are moments of possibility, and in part because they often arise only through the great sacrifice of another individual.

There would seem to be little to celebrate in “In the Fall.” As the beloved pony goes to its death, the youngest son, David, expresses his outrage at his parent's betrayal by slaughtering his mother's prized chickens. When the child swings “his axe in all directions” and calls his father a “Cocksucker … in some kind of small, sad parody of MacRae,” it would seem as if he has “plunge[d] into the nihilistic moment” (Berces 121). But far from descending into the abyss, David uses his violence to reaffirm his moral absolutes and kills the animals as an act of retribution against the parents who have fallen short of his expectations. His slaughter of the helpless birds is grisly, but the story would be darker still if he simply accepted the betrayal of his favourite pet and went about his daily chores.

If David's assertion of his own values in the face of his harsh environment reflects the passions of his youth, the reactions of his parents are more affirming in their subtlety. In the closing image of the story, the father “puts his arms around my mother's waist” and she removes the combs from her hair so that “it surrounds and engulfs my father's head” (23). The evils of the world cannot be defeated, but the sufferers can be fully cognizant of their traumas and still find comfort and strength in each other's presence. The father finds a sense of forgiveness and release in his wife's arms, and she, who cannot afford to be compassionate to the animal, can soften her hard exterior to enfold and accept her husband's sorrow. The older son recognizes that in a deterministic world uncertainty and compromise are inevitable, but if the losses are authentically recognized a deeper humanity can be retained and even strengthened. “In the Fall” does not chronicle the conquests of chaos, but rather records the slim victory of individual integrity.

James experiences a similarly fragile affirmation in the concluding scene of “The Vastness of the Dark.” The youth flees from the despicable character of the travelling salesman, recognizing his own debt and obligation to his family and community. In that recognition he makes an uneasy peace with his fate. As he leaves Springhill, he is picked up by a group of miners who are going out west to find work in Blind River. MacLeod brilliantly captures the paradox that James is free only to accept his determined condition, by describing how the youth climbs into the back seat, sees the other “two sacks of miners gear on the floor,” and puts his sack “there too because there isn't any other place” (50).7 He tacitly agrees with his fellow miners that life “seems to bust your balls and … break your heart,” but at least he has the freedom to identify with this heritage, painful as it may be. In these early stories there are no easy resolutions, “no place … for the redeemer figures that helped the travellers of old across the obstacles on the way” (Vauthier 163).

The best example of MacLeod's determination to maintain at least a tentative sense of individual integrity and freedom in the face of a deterministic world appears in “The Boat.” The narrator finds that he must choose to betray either his demanding mother or his sacrificial father. He is trapped between his sense of obligation to his mother, who feels her son will be “untrue” to his family if he leaves his village to pursue his education, and his sense of duty to his father who has given him the chance to leave by allowing himself to be washed overboard during a storm and lost at sea.8 He is “a traitor whether he goes or stays” (Keefer 234). Given his impossible situation, it is not surprising that the narrator cannot find happiness. Though he does take up the opportunity afforded by his father's untimely death and becomes a teacher at a “great Midwestern university” (106), he is haunted by his choice, and often wakes in the middle of the night so “afraid to be alone with death” that he seeks solace in the nearest “all-night restaurant” (105). In a grim world, no path can take the individual toward happiness, and since joy is not an option in MacLeod's fiction, it is vital that the protagonist have a hand in choosing his or her own misery.9 Keefer argues that the stories in MacLeod's first volume reproduce a tragic paradigm, but he does not fulfill the full tragic form; his protagonists are not destroyed by the cruel choices they are forced to make. Indeed, the very opportunity to make a choice allows them to fortify their sense of identity and survive in their otherwise tragic situation.

The emphasis on the fate of the individual, and the recognition in all the stories that only tentative bonds link the protagonist to the larger community, breeds a kind of egalitarian vision in the early stories. Unlike the later stories in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun in which MacLeod's more conservative perspective tends to reinforce the confining gender roles of the patriarchal perspective, the more liberal vision of the early stories tends to question some established social conventions. Because protagonists define themselves against the external forces of the world, less emphasis is placed on the male subject's tendency to define himself against an objectified version of the feminine. Certainly, the exclusive use of male narrators, and the fact that “sensitive males outnumber the pragmatic females—within the family context—by three to one,” confirms the reader's sense that the narratives reproduce a masculinist perspective (Ditsky 3). Moreover, there is little question that MacLeod is representing a social structure that is anchored firmly on patriarchal traditions and assumptions. But MacLeod does not always treat the primacy of the male, and the family's dependence on the man's economic power, as either natural or good. More often, the stories clearly demonstrate that individual happiness and family stability are threatened by the patriarchal traditions that value only male work, for when the worker is injured or killed—as they inevitably are in MacLeod's fiction—the rest of the family descends into terrible poverty. MacLeod treats with great sympathy the mother in “In the Fall,” who must curtail her own sympathetic responses in order to deal with her limited financial resources. And he presents as tragic figures the lonely women of Springhill, who are so traumatized by the deaths of their husbands in the mines that they are willing to sleep with such men as the travelling salesman.

Thus, even in stories written through the male gaze, the struggle of the individual is still central enough that several female characters emerge as complex figures and undertake the existential struggle to define themselves. In “The Vastness of the Dark,” James's grandmother is an independent figure who understands the economic context of her homeland and writes letters to her son begging him to ignore his father's pleas that he return home to work the local mines. Like the father in “The Boat,” she attempts to open opportunities for her children, though they may not have the strength to take advantage of them. “The Road to Rankin's Point” is a particularly good example of this egalitarian ideology as the grandmother struggles against time, old age, and the oppressive good intentions of her own children, in order to maintain her independence. Driven by the stoic realization that “no one said that life is to be easy. Only that it is to be lived,” she is still determined to stay on her own land. The moment her ability to continue resisting the whims of fate is compromised, and it seems that she may have to move to a senior's home, she willingly dies. She thus is a complex figure who is as constrained and doomed as any of the male characters in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. Such independent figures must be balanced against the many stereotyped shrews and Madonnas/mothers who populate MacLeod's stories, but if the early fiction is predominantly masculinist in tone, it is not exclusively patriarchal in its construction.

MacLeod's second collection of short stories, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, marks a significant departure from his earlier work. A change in tone was first recognized in an early review of the volume. Michael Dixon notes that “despite the constant pressures of emotional and physical violence,” the protagonists experience a “sense of profound serenity and faithfulness” as they reclaim a “collective past” and a “collective memory.” Keefer agrees that while the stories are anchored in the same environment, the characters are “freed of any fierce sense of closure” (236). The sense of ease which both critics perceive is the first evidence that MacLeod has completed an epistemological shift toward certainty. There are, of course, numerous ways in which a writer can construct a solid philosophical ground on which to stand, but as MacLeod turns increasingly to the image of the community with its stable traditional and patriarchal systems, we can recognize that this emerging sense of certainty and security is also bound up with a political shift toward a more conservative perspective.10

Many aspects of the world represented in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun are just as harsh as those found in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. In such stories as “The Winter Dog” and “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” the environment remains dangerous and threatening. Indeed, in these texts the forces of nature seem almost to be plotting actively to betray the human characters; the ice fields tempt the young boy to explore the shifting flows, and the wild dogs are driven by “blood-lust or duty or perhaps starvation” to kill the vulnerable and kind man who lands on their shores (121). Economic and cultural constraints remain strong as well. In “To Everything There Is a Season” the family depends on the money earned by the eldest son who works the “long flat carriers of grain and iron ore” that sail on the Great Lakes, and in “The Closing Down of Summer,” MacKinnon's elite team of miners must ply their trade in Africa, far from the exhausted mines of Cape Breton. Perhaps these oppressive forces are not as merciless and overwhelming as in the early prose, but they still threaten rather than support the individual.

A more substantial shift becomes apparent when we note that MacLeod's As Birds Bring Forth the Sun is less concerned with the individual's existential quest for a sense of self and is almost disinterested in the liberal concepts of freedom and independence. The later stories rarely attend to the individual choices of the protagonists. The characters in “Winter Dog,” “To Every Thing There Is a Season,” “Second Spring,” and “Vision” are all essentially passive figures who are simply waiting for events within their world or their clan to unfold, or they are recalling events in which other far-removed actants played a role. The protagonists of the later stories discover and secure their identities only by fusing themselves with a larger community. This move toward a conservative ideology in which the individual must be linked to a larger social body—which is itself maintained through its commitment to traditional hierarchies and modes of expression—is evident in each of the narratives. For example, in “The Closing Down of Summer,” the miners recognize that their sense of identity is forged and strengthened by their work as a collective unit and their joint retreat into their Gaelic heritage. The miners, who function as an interdependent working collective as they travel to mines all over the globe, have “gone back to Gaelic songs because they are so constant and unchanging and speak to us as the privately familiar” (19). The unifying power of the cultural experience cannot be restored by the artificial “Celtic Revivals” which are “fostered largely by government grants.” Instead, the essence of the culture must sink in “unconsciously through some strange osmotic process while … growing up” (19). The essence of identity can thus be established and interpreted only within the traditional community. The suggestion that identity is tribal in character is confirmed when MacKinnon observes the Zulus, who “dance until they shook the earth,” and recognizes that like those tribal dancers, he and his group cannot be understood fully by outsiders. The men are alienated from their wives and children, but the alienation breeds only a sense of regret and does not emerge as an existential anxiety. Their identities are secured by their heritage.

The conservatism of the later texts is also evident in the way MacLeod changes his representation of time, for the temporal world of the later stories is considerably less imposing than in the earlier texts. The characters are still embedded in their cultural heritage and their specific local past, and their lives are still influenced by the hand of fate, but that past is less restrictive: death remains omnipresent, but it is not sealed. Throughout As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, mysticism plays a role as superstitions, second sight, and dreams allow the protagonists to connect with the past and converse with forces beyond the grave. Life and death are not represented as binary opposites, but rather as a continuum along which particular individuals can move freely. Protagonists who are able to connect mystically with the past are able to resist and even reshape the present, and so individual identity is no longer anchored exclusively on ambiguous gestures of freedom, but on the movable ground of a community's inherited cultural memory.

In “The Tuning of Perfection,” the central figure has been alone for most of his adult life. Having lost his wife, his baby son, and his brother, before the age of twenty-seven, Archibald is such an isolated individual that even his conversation is gradually reduced to a series of murmurs and brief phrases. Yet, although he feels vulnerable and isolated from his surviving daughters and the wider community, he will not compromise his integrity as a folk singer and modify his music to meet the demands of a television producer, even though he alienates his entire clan by his stubborn behaviour. Archibald anchors his identity in the past, and his dream of his long dead wife—a dream which affords him access to a past community that only exists as a part of his memory—reinforces his commitment to his personal artistic vision.

The collection's final text, “Vision,” has an even stronger vein of mysticism. Indeed, the hand of fate seems to rule the lives of some of the characters, and thus this later story seems to distance itself, slightly, from the realist genre's emphasis on cause and effect, in favour of the romance tradition with its emphasis on predetermined patterns. The story's complex narrative records a family history stretching five generations, as the narrator recalls his own father's retelling of a fateful encounter with his maternal grandparents. The family is haunted, almost literally, by a scandal, which originated in the grandfather's decision to marry a woman while fathering twin daughters with his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law is not only betrayed, but she is also eventually blinded and, finally, she dies in an accidental fire; her spirit haunts the family ever after. The grandfather eventually goes blind, the narrator's father is blinded in the second world war, and numerous members of the family have seen visions of the wronged sister at critical moments of their lives. The family suffers from its cursed past and its shameful legacy of “uncertain” parentage, for each generation is inevitably disfigured. But if the individuals are physically wounded, the apparition of the woman also has a positive function, in that she sometimes makes appearances to warn her descendants of danger. Just before the narrator's father landed on the beaches of Normandy, he felt the spirit of the woman force him to pause, and thus, unlike the rest of his company, he was not killed by a falling shell. In a sense, then, the story suggests that some physical abilities may be compromised, but the mystical forces at work more than compensate for these physical losses by endowing the family with a greater kind of prophetic, visionary power. The narrator feels that he is a “child of uncertainty,” but when compared to the protagonists of the earlier stories, he has a strong sense of an inherited identity. He may not be able to “see and understand the twisted strand of love” that binds his family, but he does not doubt the existence of the bond (167).

Since individuals anchor themselves in their traditional community—either the immediate community that surrounds them or the community which is accessible to them across time—there is less interest in the individual's—particularly the individual woman's—search for a stable identity. As in the earlier stories, the narratives are related by or focussed on male figures, but in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun there is not a single female character who rises to prominence in the text. The conservative ideology evident elsewhere in the fiction is also apparent in the more traditional and patriarchal representations of the feminine in the later texts. There are a few attending mothers, and the occasional wife speaking from the wings, but no woman emerges, like the grandmother of “The Road to Rankin's Point,” to find her place within the communal tradition.11 If the collection is masculinist in tone, it is also more deeply patriarchal in its construction of gender roles. As each of the various male characters attempts to secure his identity by anchoring himself in his culture, he often does so by connecting with or contrasting himself against a woman who embodies, and sometimes entombs, the essence of the community's culture. The feminine is thus presented as passive space; a functional and necessary supplement to the masculine drive towards certainty. Nor is this constructed role of woman as cultural signifier ironized within the text. In “The Closing Down of Summer” MacKinnon is secure in his identity as father and husband, for he is fulfilling the traditional miner's role of supporting his family although he is never in their presence. He claims that he is not “critical of” his wife, who has been absorbed into the domestic sphere, and the narrative presents as natural the fact that she “seems to have gone permanently into a world of avocado appliances and household cleanliness and vicarious experiences provided by the interminable soap operas that fill her television afternoons” (18). “She too is from a mining family,” and is thus represented as comfortable with her empty life (18). So long as she supplements his role by ‘manning the home-front’ the narrative is not interested in exploring her role or examining MacKinnon's lack of interest in his mate's life.

In the story “Vision,” the unnamed woman, who is betrayed, is represented with considerable sympathy, but she is less an individual than a mythic figure who appears only in a series of recollections and occasional visions. She is always described by a third party, and the text finds no opportunity to focalize the narrative through her perspective. She is the anchor for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who identify themselves as the “sons of uncertainty,” but little attention is paid to the identity of the woman herself. She is less a character in the story than a function in the mythology of the family, and when she appears in visions to proclaim “it is myself,” we cannot but sense that this “self” is an abstract rather than a particular individual construct (161).

“The Tuning of Perfection” provides the clearest example of this tendency to depict the feminine as the essence of the local culture. Throughout the story Archibald is anxious about his role, for the values and practices of his folk world seem irrelevant in the new industrial and mass-media society. When he sells his remaining horse, he is appalled to discover that the animals he used for work in the woods are being bought by a pharmaceutical supplier who will use the pregnant mare's urine to make birth control pills. But despite his general desire to preserve his old-fashioned ways, he cannot find the courage to defy his family and refuse the chance to perform his music on television, until his wife appears before him in a dream and sings “with a clarity and a beauty that caused the hairs to rise on the back of his neck even as the tears welled to his eye” (113). In this context, the vision of the dead wife functions as a touchstone of authenticity and integrity, but she too is more of an icon than an individual. Indeed, her status as a static representation of an idealized past and an mystical emblem of cultural stability is necessary if she is to perform her role as a supplement who enables Archibald to secure and stabilize his identity. The identity of the feminine is, in this case, effaced, in order to shore up the identity of the masculine character at the centre of the text. Not only does the dead woman play out her role as a supplement to her husband from beyond the grave, but as the benchmark of feminine perfection she contrasts nicely with the modern women who have accommodated the demands of the twentieth century and become myopic in their vulgarity and materialism. Archibald's granddaughter drives a pick-up, which testifies to her crass character with its bumper sticker, “If you're horny, honk your horn.” Not surprisingly, she cannot fully understand Archibald's desire to maintain the integrity of his culture and his soul. MacLeod's early fiction is largely free of the sentimental impulse which characterizes much of the fiction written in the first half of the twentieth century. However, in his more recent fiction the shift towards a more conservative and patriarchal ideology has been accompanied by an increasing sense of nostalgia in the fiction. For Archibald, at least, his only moments of ease are available through his memory of an idealized past.

Not all of MacLeod's fiction dwells on the weighty issues of cultural survival, though even in the collection's few humorous pieces similar ideological patterns assert themselves through the construction of patriarchal gender roles. “The Second Spring” follows a young teen, an aspiring member of the calf club, as he attempts to improve his family's dairy stock by breeding one of their cows with a pedigree bull several miles away. The story examines humanity's attempts to manage the forces of nature, and in the first eight pages of the twenty-six page story MacLeod documents the controlled breeding practices and slaughtering procedures in such detail that it seems as though the rhythms of nature can be tamed. The lighter tone of the story emerges when the boy takes his prized cow, Morag, on a five mile journey to be covered by a thoroughbred Ayrshire bull, only to be ambushed half way by a local, hybrid, rogue bull who pushes through all man-made boundaries in his determination to follow his mating impulses. When confronted with this raw animalistic force, the naive youth recognizes and then recoils in “astonishment at the uncontrollable power of Nature” (Ditsky 7). But if the main theme examines the futility of humanity's attempts to control nature, the humour of the story is also anchored in the boy's confused and sometimes ludicrous attempts to negotiate his own gender identity. As the male in charge of Morag's reproduction, he experiments with a number of roles and identifies himself as a “concerned father,” and as “one of those ‘guides’ in the Gothic novels” who “guard [the] tremulous female figure from the lascivious, slobbering male” (76). Later, he awaits calving season as if he “were the young expectant father” (82). But the boy has misread his role and fails to recognize the real power of the masculine in the natural world. When the rogue bull approaches the protected female, the youth discovers his own helplessness as he is literally flung around by the forces of sexual desire. Instead of protecting the feminine, he sobs, becomes a stereotype of the feminine, and must be rescued by his older cousin, “a tremendously big man” who lives a “reckless life” and is thus able to confront and defeat the sexual force of the bull with a well aimed blow to the head. The boy is traumatized not just by his encounter with natural forces, but by the more specific realization that he is not able to fulfill his role as a protector and controller of the feminine. MacLeod is not suggesting that the sharp divisions between the masculine and the feminine should be modified or renegotiated. Instead, he relies on the audience's recognition and acceptance of these norms. The reader is supposed to understand that while the youth may someday be able take his appropriate place in the world, he must wait out his adolescence and seek temporary solace in baseball: a sport which grants him the ironic illusion that in his “small area of the earth it seemed that everything was under … control” (84). The patriarchal assumptions that govern the fictional community have been inscribed into the ideological and structural centre of the story, and into the centre of the collection itself.

Alistair MacLeod has been celebrated as “one of the finest practitioners of the short story” and as a teller of “brilliant” tales which break from the sentimental visions of the poor and broken in the Maritimes. Doubtless he deserves such praise, for the meticulous precision and elegance of his style has allowed him to create short fictions which, in the tradition of Maritime literature, are unparalleled in their complexity. But MacLeod's most important contribution has been his ability to remain flexible, for he has not simply retold the same tale in story after story; rather his collections reveal that his art and his ideological positions have varied over time. He has developed, as Elroy Dermert suggests, a “conscious dialectic between the idyllic notions of the traditional and the social and economic realism of contemporary Cape Breton … A dialectic … [which] is … aimed at a starker understanding of the alienation and sense of loss, which are part of the island's social realities” (171). But even this dialectic has varied and shifted over the last thirty years as MacLeod has moved from a sense of skepticism mixed with liberalism in his early explorations of the individual to a more focussed and conservative exploration of the role society and memory play in the life and consciousness of the individual. The reasons for MacLeod's ideological shift could be diverse. After a period of skepticism and uncertainty, MacLeod may have become more personally committed to the notion that communal and traditional hierarchies help to steady and stabilize the individual. Or, as has been the case with another Maritime writer, David Adams Richards, a prolonged exploration of the grimmer aspects of Maritime experience within a realist framework may have propelled him toward more salutary, less naturalistic forms through which he can produce a more confident representation of the region. Nor should we ignore the possibility that MacLeod may be responding to his own decision to develop his professional career outside the region, with a corresponding recognition of the importance of memory, history, and community within his later narratives. Whatever the reasons, MacLeod himself could comfortably adopt the words of the father in “To Every Thing There Is a Season,” as he quietly affirms that, “Every man moves on … but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind” (57).


  1. Budge Wilson's The Leaving won the Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Canadian Book Award in 1990, and Leo McKay's Like This: Stories was nominated for the Giller Prize in 1995.

  2. “The Boat” first appeared in 1969, “The Vastness of the Dark” was published in 1971, and “In the Fall” was first published in 1973. “Second Spring” and “The Tuning of Perfection” were first published in 1980 and 1984 respectively and “Vision” first appeared when As Birds Bring Forth the Sun was published in 1986. After publishing As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, MacLeod worked steadily on a novel and produced virtually no short fiction, with the exception of a story called “Island,” published by Thistledown Press in 1989. The novel, entitled No Great Mischief, was published in the fall of 1999. Although this paper will not examine the novel, it is worth noting that in his latest text MacLeod continues to explore the themes and positions he set forth in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. For the characters in No Great Mischief, a sense of personal identity can be attained only as the individuals connect themselves to the historically anchored, collectively constituted community. Alexander MacDonald, the narrator of the novel, is literally and figuratively orphaned in the modern world, and he reaches a full understanding of himself only as he follows and attends to his older brother Calum MacDonald, the clan leader of his generation who faithfully obeys the dictates of his culture, even if he must resist the assumptions of the contemporary world.

  3. MacLeod's commitment to the realist aesthetic is evident, most immediately, in his elegant and precise style. Characterized by its lack of linguistic self-reflexivity, a realist text keeps the role of language and questions about its own fictionality in the background, and once the style has been established it rarely calls attention to itself. Though critics have occasionally suggested that MacLeod's highly “literary” style moves his short fiction towards a postmodern aesthetic, there is little support for such an argument: MacLeod carefully effaces any of the inter- or intra-textual allusions which might suggest that the stories are self-conscious ventures into the realms of textual play. Even the extraordinarily elegant and precise style of the narration is justified within a realist framework, for the narrators are often highly educated. The sophisticated style of the stories is never examined in the self-reflexive fashion that characterizes the metafictional texts being produced by other writers in the late 1960s and 1970s. For a more complete analysis of critics' attempts to view MacLeod as a postmodern writer see Hiscock's forthcoming article, “‘The Inherited Life’: Alistair MacLeod and the Ends of History,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35.2 (2000).

  4. Liberalism has been defined in numerous ways, but the term generally denotes an ideology which asserts that an individual has the “liberty” to determine his/her own physical, emotional, and spiritual state, within the secure confines of a social system (Horowitz 143-47). In Technology and Empire, George Grant expands on this definition asserting that “liberalism [is] a set of beliefs which proceed from the central assumptions that man's essence is his freedom and therefore what chiefly concerns man in this life is to shape the world as we want it” (114). MacLeod is less interested the individual's desire to reshape the world, and more attentive to the ways in which the world threatens to reshape the individual.

  5. Characters from urban centers are often depicted as selfish and self-centered. This pattern is played out by such negative actants as the traveling salesman, the overly protective and snobbish mother in “The Return,” and the selfish children who are at the airport to greet their father at the end of “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.” But the rural world is just as capable of producing self-centered characters, and the reader must avoid concluding too quickly that MacLeod, as a Maritimer, is reproducing a hinterland's bias against the urban centre.

  6. Francis Berces argues that although there no “special basis at present for invoking Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, Marcel, or others as specific sources” for MacLeod's existentialism, his “repeated concern with several aspects of the human condition, in particular with choice, freedom, becoming, alienation, exile, other people, and death” allows us to readily associate his work with this philosophical movement (114-15).

  7. A note of thanks to Shyanne Austin and the students in “English 3503: Canadian Short Fiction,” for their careful explication of this passage.

  8. Readers are sometimes uncertain about the father's motivations at the moment of his death, for the narrator reveals only that he turned to look at his father “and he was not there and I knew even in that instant that he would never be again” (123). Suicide is the most likely option. Earlier in the story, the narrator carefully recounts how he vowed that he would fish with his father “as long as he lived,” and his father only “smiled” and cryptically replied “I hope you will remember what you've said” (122). The passage is carefully planted by MacLeod and the “resonant admonition” would make little sense, unless we admit that the father is planning his own death in order to allow (or even force) his son to abandon the boat and seek a new life (Stevens 270). Indeed, it would be difficult to explain the narrator's torturous nightmares unless we conclude that he, at least, is convinced that his father's death was not accidental.

  9. Berces suggests that the texts strongly echo Camus and argues in a similar vein that the “very harshness and simplicity of their living conditions … all provide … a Sisyphean context in which the human spirit is seen striving to affirm its most basic values rather than submitting to the weight of necessity” (115-16).

  10. Conservatives emphasize the importance of social order and stress collectivist models whether they be located in the family unit, the local village, or the nation as a whole (Cantor 279). The secure identity of the individual is important, but individuality itself is not of supreme value within a system which emphasizes the transhistorical, universal “character of humanity.” Ultimately, people must come together to form a hierarchical, patriarchal, cooperative unit for the society to function, and even if communities decay and need to be renewed, reformed, or even restructured, the guiding model is always communal (Horowitz 144).

  11. This discussion is focusing on the ideologies which drive the two collections of short fiction, but it should be remembered that MacLeod's story “Island,” published by Thistle-down Press in 1989, is written from the female perspective. The central protagonist of that text, Agnes MacPhedran, certainly evolves into a self-conscious and distinct personality as she operates in a patriarchal world. More recently, in MacLeod's novel No Great Mischief the narrator's paternal grandmother and his twin sister both emerge as rounded characters in a novel which is otherwise exclusively interested in exploring the complexities and tragedies of the masculine world.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. 1946. Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.

Berces, Francis. “Existential Maritimer: Alistair MacLeod's The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.Studies in Canadian Literature 16.1 (1991): 114-28.

Cantor, Norman F. Twentieth-Century Culture: Modernism to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

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

Dermert, Elroy. Canadian Voices from the Region: W. O. Mitchell, Buckler, MacLeod, and Vanderhaege. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Alberta. 1994.

Ditsky, John. “‘Such Meticulous Brightness:’ The Fictions of Alistair MacLeod.” The Hollins Critic 25.1 (1988): 1-9.

Dixon, Michael. “Review of MacLeod's As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” in “Letters in Canada, 1986, Fiction.” University of Toronto Quarterly 57.1 (1986): 11.

Gittings, Christopher. “‘Sounds in the Empty Spaces of History:’ The Highland Clearances in Neil Gunn's Highland River and Alistair MacLeod's ‘The Road to Rankin Point.’” Studies in Canadian Literature 17.1 (1992): 93-105.

Grant, George. Technology and Empire. Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969.

Hiscock, Andrew. “‘The Inherited Life’: Alistair MacLeod and the Ends of History.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35.2 Forthcoming 2000.

Horowitz, G. “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 32.2 (1966): 143-71.

Keefer, Janice Kulyk. Under Eastern Eyes: A Critical Reading of Maritime Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987.

MacLeod, Alistair. As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

———. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Nicholson, Colin. “Alistair MacLeod.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 21.1 (1986): 188-200.

———. “Signatures of Time: Alistair MacLeod and his Short Stories.” Canadian Literature 107 (1985): 90-101.

———. “‘The Turning of Memory:’ Alistair MacLeod's Short Stories.” Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Americaines (RANAM) 20 (1987): 85-93.

Stevens, David. “Writing Region Across the Border: The Two stories of Breece Pancake and Alistair MacLeod.” Studies in Short Fiction 33.2 (1996): 263-71.

Taylor, James O. “Art Imagery and Destiny in Alistair MacLeod's Fiction: ‘Winter Dog’ as Paradigm.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29.2 (1994): 61-69.

Vauthier Simone. “Time and Space in Alistair MacLeod's ‘The Road To Rankin's Point.’” Critical Essays on Contemporary Maritime Canadian Literature. Eds. Wolfgang Hochbruck and James O. Taylor. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1996: 157-78.

Wellek, Rene. “The Concept of Realism in Literary Scholarship.” Concepts of Criticism. Ed. Stephen G. Nichols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963: 222-55.

Susan Knutson (review date winter 2000)

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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 nation. If the theme is not new, however, MacLeod's treatment of it [in No Great Mischief] is still fresh, disclosing much that has become obscure, and reconfiguring most of the fundamental categories Canadians use when talking and thinking about national identity.

Initially striking is the rivalry—itself archaic and extreme—between two fighting clans and their leaders, Calum MacDonald and Fern Picard.

We … were standing in the middle of the path when we saw Fern Picard approaching. The path was narrow and we stood two abreast. His pace seemed to quicken when he saw us, and his increased speed seemed to emphasize how big he was. There was no space for him to pass without his leaving the path, and it seemed certain he was not going to do that.

‘Well, I have to go,’ I said at the last moment, vacating my place on the path. Fern Picard's shoulder brushed my brother's as he passed and we heard him say, ‘Mange la merde’ under his breath. ‘Mac an diabhoil,’ I heard my brother say, and each of them spat, as if on cue, into the centre of the path.

Although this rivalry will end in death for one man and prison for the other, the book does not take an entirely negative view of it, but rather explores the phenomenon of clan leadership, chieftainship, and kingship, from a historical and romantic perspective. MacLeod underlines the Highlanders' loyalty to their leaders, the betrayal of those leaders by their allies, and the leaders' sometime betrayal of a people who ‘believed they had a king.’ The peoples' fidelity, like that of family dogs, schools of herring, or birds returning to their breeding grounds, is a mighty, mysterious, and even mystical force.

Such an archaic organization based on kinship is qualified, however, by MacLeod's recognition of the genetic relations binding the French, the English, the Scots, and the First Nations, from General Wolfe who, like the clann Chalum Ruaidh, had red hair (clan members' hair is either red or black), to James MacDonald, the James Bay Cree who was no less a cousin agam fhein. Somewhere near the centre of all these connections, where ‘ethnic purity,’ did it exist, might be supposed to lie, is the figure of the Prince himself, with his red hair, his French language and his uncontrolled descendance:

Although he was our Prince, he was raised in France and spoke mainly French, while we spoke Gaelic. About a thousand men went with him from here. The Bratach Ban, the white and crimson banner, was blessed at Glenfinnan by MacDonald. … We could have won … if the boats had come from France. We could have won if the rest of the country had joined with us. It was worth fighting for, our own land and our own people, and our own way of being.

The parallel experience of the French Canadians at Québec and the Scots at Culloden, one of several historical ironies binding the heirs of the two nations.

MacLeod also interprets the Highlanders as an indigenous people, comparing their experience to that of the Masai on the plain at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the south of Kenya near the border of Tanzania. Radical and understated, he highlights the genocidal danger which threatens the Masai as he weaves in a comparison between them and the equally ‘troublesome’ Highlanders who were once removed from the land where they had long walked in their bare feet. In the modern economy, all peoples may be displaced. ‘In the bunkhouses of the mining and construction camps … late at night you could hear the men dreaming in all their different languages,’ in Portuguese, Italian, Polish, French, Hungarian, Gaelic, or Zulu, ‘shouts of encouragement or warning or fear or sometimes softer expressions of affection or of love.’

Given this glimmering night light of dreaming unity between hard-working and no longer indigenous men, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the book's characters see themselves as citizens not of an independent Queébec but of the eleventh province advocated by Réal Caouette, leader of the Créditistes in the early 1970s. Le pays des Laurentides ‘would straddle the border of eastern Ontario and western Quebec. It would include places like Rouyn-Noranda, Cobalt, Tamagami, Kirkland Lake, Larder Lake, Temiskaming, and Abitibi. His reasoning,’ variations of which can be heard still in the year 2000, ‘was that the people of that region had more in common with one another than they had with those whom they felt controlled their destinies from the distant cities of Toronto and Quebec City, people who shared neither their weather, their landscape, their daily concerns, nor their sensitivities.’ Breaking open the binary categories of Upper and Lower Canada, identifying neither with Québec nor with Ontario, but drawing territory and people from both, this imagined country is a land of working men, of mines and lumber camps, rivers and forests. ‘The citizens of Réal Caouette's proposed new province possessed a body of song as well. Sometimes Marcel Gingras would sing one or two songs to us, although they often surpassed our understanding. They affected him though, quite deeply and sometimes his eyes would fill with embarrassed mist as he ran his hand over the tattered map, outlining the lines that did not visually exist.’ In this too, of course, the Highlanders have a parallel history, a body of songs that bring tears to their eyes, and lines on the map that exist for only them.

MacLeod's novel is not a story of individuals but a portrait of a people, the Cape Breton clann Chalum Ruaidh, seen at certain critical points in the story in comparative relation to the Québécois. Near the end of the book, the narrator's twin sister explains that she had tried to enlarge a family portrait and to isolate the figures of her own parents, ‘to separate our parents from these large groups.’ She was not able to do it, however—‘as the photographs became larger the individual features of their faces became more blurred. … I left them with their group. It seemed the only thing to do.’ In the family tree novel one cannot isolate the images, even of one's own parents, from that of the clan.

Kathleen Venema (review date February 2000)

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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 natural world. The 14 often hauntingly exquisite stories bear numerous rereadings. They also provoke readers to imagine, as Joyce Carol Oates does in an afterword to MacLeod's first collection, that virtually any one of them might be expanded into a novel.

No Great Mischief is MacLeod's first and, in some circles, long-awaited novel, and it tells a story that will be deeply familiar to his readers. A first-person male narrator, defined primarily by his identity as son, grandson and brother, struggles to understand his Cape Breton Gaelic heritage as it has been cemented by the dubious joint acts of memory and storytelling. Alexander MacDonald is a successful southern Ontario orthodontist, one in his family's vast collection of “Alexanders,” and better known throughout the novel as gille bhig ruaidh—“little red-haired boy.” Almost all of the novel's action occurs in Alexander's memory during the 13 minutes or so he spends deciding what kind of liquor to bring back to his eldest brother, Calum, a former miner living out his alcoholic days in the seedy rooming houses of Toronto's west end.

By this device, the novel tackles history's inexplicable repetitions and reversals and the apparently ordinary forms of life-shaping tragedy. Its greatest strengths are its brief, unforgettable narrative images. In one early episode, Alexander remembers what he knows of his parents' drowning when he was only three:

By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and out there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still. Grandpa watched for almost a minute to be sure of what he was seeing and then he shouted to my grandmother, “There is something wrong out on the ice. There is only one light and it is not moving.”

Similar descriptions bring the narrator's robustly sexual grandparents, his exactly opposite grandfathers, the loyal mare Christy, and Calum's unconventional tooth extraction to life. “Once we sang to the pilot whales on a summer's day,” he recalls, the second time he tells the story, near the novel's conclusion. “Perhaps we lured the huge whale in beyond his safe depth. And he died, disembowelled by the sharp rocks he could not see. Later his body moved inland, but his great heart remained behind.” The narrator's one direct conversation with Calum about the loss at the novel's core acts with a similarly subtle poignancy:

“Oh well,” Calum sighed, looking out the window at the jagged rocks and mangled trees, “too many bodies and too many wars. I often think it ironic that our father came through the war unscathed only to die beneath the ice at the end of a sunny March day.”

“Yes,” I said, “If you had been with them you would have gone down too.”

“I look at it differently,” he said. “If I had been with them I might have saved them.”

Enigmatic qualities in MacLeod's short fiction provoke us to imagine extended, elaborated, even epic possibilities. The novel, by contrast, is dulled by repetitions of words, phrases, images and ideas that never accrue the significance their sheer numbers imply. Mysterious invocations and recognitions of clan identity over continents and generations should make for resonant, eerie reading. It is therefore regrettable and surprising that the novel leaves no room for mystery or surprise: it tells us everything we need to know.

Members of clann Chalum Ruaidh have red or black hair and recognize one another no matter where in the world they are; Alexander's grandfathers are almost exactly opposite to each other but both men's qualities are necessary in the life of a family and a community; Alexander's orthodontic work makes people beautiful on the outside but doesn't change their inner selves; Alexander's sister's luxurious Calgary house can't compensate for distance from her family; young Calum internalizes the trauma of his parents' deaths, runs wild, acquires highly regarded mining skills, but eventually kills a man, goes to jail and becomes an alcoholic; Grandma speaks in clichés. Again and again.

There are arguments for the usefulness of an imperceptive narrator, but none of them apply here—No Great Mischief is too deeply flawed by its narrator's limited insight. Unlike the narrators of MacLeod's stories, Alexander learns almost nothing from the patterns he observes and enacts. The gille bhig ruaidh (a phrase that recurs with a frequency only an actual oral telling could justify) fails to do justice to the fragments which he eventually gathers into a chronicle. Although he manages to account for the wasted alcoholic pining for Cape Breton from his rundown room, Alexander never manages to make us care about him.

Much of MacLeod's short fiction explores the ways in which storytelling maintains identity, family history and ethnic memory. In this longer work, he overtly invokes oral storytelling qualities whose lulling effects on the reader belie the hard truth at the narrative's core: small tragedies resonate wrackingly through lifetimes and generations. Unlike his haunting and allusive earlier writing, his novel's ultimately numbing repetitions betray a deeply disappointing misalignment of story and form.

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

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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 accomplished short story writer—one day grew fed up and sped down the highway from Toronto to Windsor, a small Canadian city across the border from Detroit. He then rushed to the University of Windsor, where MacLeod has been teaching creative writing and 19th-century literature for the past 30 years, and snatched from the professor a manuscript hand-scribbled mostly on exam booklets and loose leaf paper.

MacLeod agrees to the facts of the story, but downplays their implication.

“I don't think the struggle was as mammoth as he [Gibson] makes it sound,” MacLeod says with a Cape Breton lilt, admitting that the book was a long time in the writing. “People make it sound like I have been working on this book 10 hours a day for the last 13 years,” he chuckles. “It's as if I put down only half a word a year.” The book has been poking around in his head for a long time, MacLeod says. He just needed the time to perfect it.

MacLeod has developed a reputation as an exacting writer. He does not commit anything to paper unless it is perfect, since he does not bother with revisions. MacLeod's two short story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), both published by McClelland & Stewart, each took 10 years to complete. The author has been reading excerpts from No Great Mischief for the last two years, but when asked by his enraptured audiences when they could expect to see the novel on bookshelves, the 64-year-old MacLeod would reply, “Soon, soon.”

As critics have agreed, it was well worth the wait. Since its release in Canada in early October, No Great Mischief has remained steadily near the top of Canada's bestseller lists. In the U.S., W. W. Norton will publish the novel this May (Forecasts, Apr. 3), sending MacLeod on a six-city tour to New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis; Seattle; and San Francisco. In the fall, Norton plans to collect all of MacLeod's short stories in a volume titled Island: The Complete Stories.

Around the world, the novel is a bona fide publishing hit, with bidders from here to Israel fighting for the rights. According to Marilyn Bidderman, McClelland & Stewart's rights director, the novel took the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm. U.S. rights were sold to Norton after a three-day auction the week before the fair. By the third day of the fair, M&S had three six-figure offers for No Great Mischief from German publishers, with the highest offer doubling overnight. The novel has been sold in 10 countries to date, including France, Spain and the Netherlands.

Meeting MacLeod at the McDonald's outside the university, it is plain the writer hasn't strayed from his humble roots, despite his international triumphs. He is wearing a plaid cap and weathered, brown leather vest, and as he opens the door to his beat-up car, the strains of a catchy Celtic tune with an escalating tempo fill the air. It's a ditty by Howie MacDonald, a member of the Rankin Family, and the song itself seems to emanate from the pages of No Great Mischief, where everything comes down to roots. Welcome to MacLeod country.

Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, MacLeod was raised among his extended, Scottish family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—a rocky, Atlantic coast island well-populated by residents of Scottish descent. Not surprisingly, it is fertile ground for Scottish and Celtic arts. Objects on display in MacLeod's office at the university expose the writer's inner motivations. A magazine on Celtic music rests beside his chair and a photo of his great-grandfather's house in Cape Breton sits center stage on his desk. The house remains empty all winter, but MacLeod and his wife spend summers, as well as his sabbatical years, there. MacLeod and his wife grew up in Inverness, on Cape Breton. Two of his six children were born in the town where his in-laws still live, tying the author even closer to the home of his youth.

The notion of the ties that bind people—to family, to a specific geographic area and to history—resonate in the novel, and with the MacLeod family. Yet MacLeod is quick to add that the novel is not autobiographical.

“I like it when people think my book is autobiographical, because that means that I succeeded in using the technique that I set out to use—that I am a certain person, living in a certain place in a certain time, and I am going to tell you what happened to me. I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it,” he explains.

The plot centers around protagonist Alexander MacDonald, who is orphaned as a child when his parents drown in icy waters. MacDonald grows up to become an orthodontist, in stark contrast to his older brothers, who spend their lives at harsher occupations like fishing and mining, drinking hard and struggling to make ends meet. Through his narrator, MacLeod retells the history of the MacDonald clan, or rather, Calum Ruadh (Red Calum's clan), focusing on the importance of loyalty and familial obligation.

The family, and other Scots in this Cape Breton tale, are united by a strong sense of common history. The narrative hearkens back to Scotland in 1745 and the slaughter of Scots at Culloden Moor. Later, it moves to Canada and the 1759 assault on Quebec, where General Wolfe is reported to have said of projected heavy losses of his Scottish troops, “No great mischief if they fall”—lending the novel its title. In modern times, Alexander MacDonald is unable to shed the obligations that come along with the clan's heritage, and the responsibility he feels for his brothers.

MacLeod knows intimately the landscape of the novel, as well as the songs and the people he writes of. “I know the songs, and I know the landscape, and I know how snow works and I know how boats work. All that physical setting I know quite well. What I have done was invent people to put in those physical settings. And I think that is a good way to work.”

At heart, MacLeod is a storyteller. And the voice capturing that oral tradition of storytelling in the novel sounds uncannily like MacLeod's own Cape Breton lilt. Not surprisingly, MacLeod reads his sentences aloud as he writes, to ensure they maintain their lyrical qualities and sound as if they were spoken, not written.


MacLeod's novel has made headlines not only for its accolades but for its scandals. A typo in the mailing room disqualified the novel for one of Canada's top prizes, the Governor General's Award, apparently offering the novel for competition in the year 2000 rather than 1999. MacLeod's publisher contested the prize committee's decision, saying that it was nonsense that a novel would be completed and submitted for a prize over a year in advance. The Canada Council agreed that a mistake had been made and No Great Mischief will compete this year for the award.

Yet MacLeod believes he has lost his chance since works by several top-notch Canadian authors, like Carol Shields and Michael Ondaatje, are being released this year.

“It seemed more horrendous to a lot of people than to me,” MacLeod said of the prize fiasco, although he admits that it “would have been nice” to be nominated for a Governor General's Award. With or without the nomination, MacLeod is content that the novel continues to chug along at a comfortable clip on Canada's bestseller lists.

For MacLeod, previously regarded as “a writer's writer,” No Great Mischief's success is an exciting development. Although his work has twice been included in the Best American Short Stories series, and the Modern Library last April selected The Lost Salt Gift of Blood as among the best 200 English novels since 1950 (though it is a short story collection), MacLeod has remained relatively unknown.

He used to be a recognized name in the U.S. literary world, but living in Canada and writing at a tortoise's clip took MacLeod out of the publishing limelight. The author recalls attending a literary event in New York several years back and wearing a name tag. Someone approached him and said, “Alistair MacLeod, I thought you died.” “No,” replied the author. “I didn't die. I just went to Canada.”

In his youth, MacLeod completed a master's degree at the University of New Brunswick and then went for his doctorate at the University of Notre Dame, specifically to study under a well-known professor of creative writing, Frank O'Malley. After getting his Ph.D., he was invited to the University of Windsor to teach creative writing—a course that was not given much credence 30 years ago. Not much has changed, according to MacLeod.

“Today there is a division between those who write about literature and those who create it,” he says, adding that some universities are even hostile to the creative process. “I, obviously, don't think that should be there,” he laughs. “If people aren't creating literature, there would be nothing for people to criticize.”

“If you were to go to the library and look at all the books written on Shakespeare, there would be more than those written by Shakespeare. But one must remember that they are ‘as a candle is to the sun,’” MacLeod continues, quoting William Blake. “It is a different kind of light they are shedding.”

As a teacher of creative writing, MacLeod tries to convey to his students that they should write about what they care most deeply about. “If they don't care passionately about their subject, their writing won't be as good. And I find that you can't give people interest, and you can't give them talent and you can't give them imagination, so people ask, ‘How can you teach creative writing?’ I see myself as a midwife, or a coach. I take what they have and try to make it better.”

MacLeod also tries to convey the difference between what is true and what is real.

“There is a kind of belief among my students that things that are true are interesting. But most things that are true are not interesting. Four pages describing how I got up and brushed my teeth in the morning would kill you. ‘Truth will make you free,’ they say. Well,” MacLeod laughs, “I think the truth is just boring. … You don't need autobiographical truth. Just real stories.”

Moving from short stories to a novel was a natural progression for MacLeod. Writing short stories was “intense,” like “running a 100-meter sprint.” Writing a novel felt more like a marathon, he says, joking that he had to pace himself and “save up energy for hill number seven.”

But taking a long time to compile short stories differs greatly from taking an even longer time to write a novel, as MacLeod discovered. Colloquialisms change, as do current events. “I found [writing a novel] that the history around you changes. I don't think this should affect you, but it kind of does because you are affected by the world you live in. Things you could say six or seven years ago, you can't say anymore.

“You couldn't write Cold War novels or Uncle Tom's Cabin today. Sure, slavery is bad, but we're all in a historical context whether we like it or not … the fact is that the world around me changed, and I changed myself.”

Despite his glacial pace, MacLeod felt compelled to move toward the novel form since his last few short stories were approaching novella length. “I think I needed a bigger canvas, a bus instead of a Volkswagen to put all my people in,” he says boisterously, “and send them on a big trip. To Regina instead of Chatham.”

Nearing retirement and recovering from his postpublishing euphoria, the writer claims he is resting now and not concentrating on writing anything new. “I see myself as a hockey player at the end of the season. I just want to get the smelly underwear and stinky skates off and say, ‘No more for two months.’ When I get all this stuff cleaned out,” he says, looking at the impenetrable hill of papers in his office, “and a lot of things happen, then I will write again. Right now, I am overwhelmed.”

Ron Charles (review date 15 June 2000)

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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 Great Mischief, is a valediction forbidding mourning, a gorgeous celebration of family nostalgia and its staying power.

For members of the sprawling MacDonald clan, history began in 1779 when Calum MacDonald fled the troubles of Scotland for the New World with his wife and 12 children. Over the next 200 years, their family tree grows so thickly that every descendent lives in its shade.

In one sense, the entire novel takes place during an afternoon visit between two siblings. Alexander MacDonald makes the drive to his older brother's ratty apartment in Toronto every Saturday. It's an unpleasant burden that the wealthy orthodontist wouldn't consider neglecting. As his grandma frequently reminded him, “All of us are better when we're loved.”

Even before he arrives, the family memories—stretching back for generations—begin to rise from the ground like mist. “I think of my grandparents a great deal, and, as in the manner of the remembered Gaelic songs, I do not do so consciously,” Alexander says.

Past and present are blended here as seamlessly as twilight shifts to night. Most of the novel comprises flawlessly told stories from every season of the MacDonald history.

Alexander's memories begin with the hazy impressions of his parents, who dropped through the ice one night while crossing to the lighthouse on Cape Breton.

That tragedy chased his three older brothers into the woods to live by themselves in an abandoned cabin. He and his twin sister were raised by kind grandparents.

Even while Alexander grows up in the modern world, he continually laces back into the past, listening to his grandparents' stories and visiting his wild brothers, who have reverted to Gaelic in the forest.

When one of his cousins—another Alexander named for a common ancestor—is decapitated in an industrial accident, the narrator postpones his college education to join the MacDonald men in the uranium mines. Amid the treachery above ground and the harsh conditions below, the clan holds tight to their family motto: “Always look after your own blood,” a tenet that becomes more evocative with every repetition.

Along the edges of this reverent reverie, efforts to dilute the past are everywhere: Alexander's well-heeled patients hope to erase the imprint of ancestry from their jaw lines; insatiable shoppers embrace the latest fads; political hawks fund weapons capable of destroying the planet—the ultimate affront to memory.

There's a majesty in these recollections that transcends sentimentality. MacLeod's rich, unpretentious style never hits a false note. “Whatever its inaccuracies,” Alexander explains, “this information has come to be known in the manner that family members come to know one another because they share such close proximity. Or as Grandma would say, ‘How could you not know that?’”

Indeed, how could they not know about the time their Grandpa was decorated with Christmas lights while he slept, or about the dog that would rather drown than be left behind in Scotland?

Until this novel, MacLeod, a Canadian, was known for his finely crafted short stories. No Great Mischief signals a remarkable shift to a longer form. He writes with stunning precision about the way these people build their own legends in the branches of triumph and tragedy. Before long, their family tree seems to include us, too.

Hal Jensen (review date 11 August 2000)

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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 reminiscences of his childhood. These reminiscences mix his own memories with the tales his grandparents used to tell about the history of his family, the MacDonald clan, clann Chalum Ruaidh.

The central figure in this history is another Calum MacDonald, a Highlander who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie's cause and in the subsequent troubles found it necessary to leave his homeland. In 1779, with his second wife and many children, he set off for Cape Breton, Canada. The journey was not easy. The conditions on the ship were grim and the weather was terrible. Struck with fever, Calum's wife died. The next week, one of his daughters gave birth. The whole episode of the crossing—the exile, optimism, family unity, hardships, courage, tragic death and perpetuation of the MacDonald gene—have mythic force for the clan, and the story echoes through many of the events of Alexander's life.

Calum MacDonald's crossing takes three pages to describe, but it sits in the mind as a single image, like a framed painting which moves before our eyes. MacLeod's pictures are full of import, but they are never explained or reduced to coded messages. The power of meaning comes from concentrating on the images themselves. The language is exact, almost tactile, but the exactness is not preciosity or an accumulation of incidental detail. It consists in describing scenes only from a perspective that reveals what might be called their natural power, without human interference. The rhythm of the writing, too, appears to be dictated by what it describes rather than being a matter of authorial consideration.

The book's powerful images include a boulder that is part of a promontory and has been carved to commemorate the first Calum MacDonald; after a tremendous storm when it is freshly wet, its words are markedly clearer. Then there is the occasion when a pilot whale is separated from its spouting and flipping companions and washed to the shore, where its belly is ripped open on the rocks; after a storm, the body is washed back to the sea, but the innards remain trapped: “the grey intestines coiled and sloshed, as did the liver and the stomach and the great, gigantic heart.” Alexander's brother tells of a spruce grove in which a central tree that has been sawn through at the base remains standing and immovable, because the higher branches are so strongly intertwined with those of its neighbours. When Alexander is only three, his parents fall through the ice and drown. The quietness of the scene, as he relates it, illustrates the brutally undramatic way in which nature can claim our little lives:

By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still.

Alexander is brought up by his paternal grandparents. MacLeod's descriptions of these true MacDonalds—their amiability, loyalty, rootedness and proverbial wisdom—are delightful. Grandpa's drinking is another family characteristic: “He wobbled to his chair at the end of the kitchen table, where he sat swaying almost regularly, as if sitting on the deck of a departing, pitching boat. ‘How is everyone?’ he said, waving to us blearily, his hand moving back and forth before his face, as if he were cleaning an imaginary windshield.”

Just as the characteristics illustrated in all the MacDonald stories have a family likeness (un-usual strength in unusual adversity) and just as certain members of the clan have distinctive physical attributes (red hair and dark eyes), so the scenes in a story work by echoing each other, adding thin layer on layer to one central story. (This is in contrast to the locomotive drive of novels.) A family unites itself through finding and celebrating resemblances, and preserves itself through memory and reproduction. Stories work the same way. Furthermore, family ties do not allow any one person to be greater than the clan, just as stories sink individualism (the prime material of novels) into the grander workings of nature. Where novels test our personality, stories take us out of ourselves.

No Great Mischief is not just a story about stories but a story about storytelling. Alexander, as he observes his own acts of remembrance, is aware that he is not fully part of the picture he paints. There is a distance or a flicking in and out of the frame. His rationality, his respectable dental practice, his untroubled daily routine separate him from clann Chalum Ruaidh as much as his physical features and his childhood attach him to it. In this he resembles his maternal grandfather (known to be illegitimate) who, although he knew all the stories and could sing the songs, would often puncture the romanticism with which others recalled the past. Alistair MacLeod has figured himself in both these characters. He grasps how our imagination sometimes feels more real than the ordinary world we live in, yet is never wholly trusted by the modern rational temperament. Granted we cannot inhabit the realm of stories, No Great Mischief nevertheless persuades us that we should travel there more often.

Andrew Hiscock (essay date fall 2000)

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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 who is caught up in a kind of hereditary pattern, where people fish, and the only son inherits the father's boat—that kind of life. But what I was getting at with the father was that here was a person who maybe didn't want to do that at all, but who is just caught up in this inherited life.1

Both in his interviews and short story writing, Alistair MacLeod explicitly invites his audience to focus hard upon the determinant status of history, memory and caste in the formulation of human experience. His short story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986), constitute complex meditations on the nature of origin and belonging; and they clearly engage tightly with the kinds of issues that the historian Francis Fukuyama, for example, wished to highlight in 1989 when he declared that late twentieth-century culture must confront “the end of history”—the collapse of an hitherto key metanarrative with the onset of an age of urbocentrism, technological totalitarianism and commercial commodification. However, unwilling to have History overshadowed by the imperatives of the Shopping Mall, MacLeod chooses to concentrate upon this strategic cultural construct not only as an unexhausted narrative of meaning, but also in terms of its authority over human experience as a cultural directive. In this context, the ends of history may suggest both closure and objective.

Francis Berces has stressed that “in a single story, MacLeod's characters frequently span several generations, thus establishing historicity as a human value.”2 Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent from these short stories that in his Maritime communities the legacies of received thinking, myths of belonging and possibilities of an organic social vision are being corroded remorselessly; as a consequence, his characters are forced to negotiate the conflicting demands of historic obligations and self-realization. In succeeding narratives, his readers are compelled to revisit the painful dilemmas associated with identity construction in settlements marked by economic deprivation and cultural ex-centricity. The energetic Canadian promotion of itself in terms of cultural mosaic disintegrates when applied to MacLeod's Nova Scotian fishing and agrarian communities, communities frequently traumatized by their encounters with temporary exiles from the “global village.”

The questioning of personal and collective narratives of experience can operate as a point of departure for self-creativity in MacLeod's writing, but can frequently lead to the collapse of the narrator's emotional and moral certainties. The past remains unfinished and his narrators are awkward participants (all too often self-condemned traitors) in its grubby resolutions:

[…] “Here,” she said, sliding a glass towards him across the table and seating herself opposite him. “Here, have a shot of this. It will put lead in your pencil,” and then after a pause, “although from what I've heard there's no need of that.”

He was taken aback, somehow imagining her and his twin brother lying side by side at night discussing his physicality.

Heard what? he wondered. Where?

“Yeah,” she said. “There's not much need of you being up here on this mountain by yourself and me being by myself farther down. If you don't use it, it'll rust off.”3

Recurring instances of narratorial alienation, in this case occasioned by the sexual advances of the wife of a dead brother, regularly punctuate MacLeod's texts and point carefully to the thorny problems involved in deploying the family as a prime site for identity construction in these Maritime worlds. The urgent business of formulating myths of belonging for his narrators leads to a textual investigation into their cultural schizophrenia as they are forced to masquerade a whole sequence of identities in their homecomings and departures from the Maritime communities. His narrative voices indeed become a focus for slippage between two contradictory discourses of cultural engagement:

And perhaps now I should go and say, oh son of my summa cum laude loins, come away from the lonely gulls and the silver trout and I will take you to the land of the Tastee Freeze where you may sleep till ten of nine. And I will show you the elevator to the apartment on the sixteenth floor and introduce you to the buzzer system and the yards of the wrought-iron fences where the Doberman pinscher runs silently at night. Or may I offer you the money that is the fruit of my collecting and my most successful life? Or shall I wait to meet you in some known or unknown bitterness like Yeats's Cuchulain by the wind-worshipped sea or as Sohrab and Rustum by the future flowing river?

Again I collect dreams. For I do not know enough of the fog on Toronto's Queen St. West and the grinding crash of the pickup and of lost and misplaced love.4

Frank O'Connor persuasively argued in his generic study of the short story that the novel “[adheres] to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community […]; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent […]. […] there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”5 MacLeod's short stories may be found to articulate forcefully O'Connor's concerns here: they return obsessively to the formidable authority of the cultural archives and obligations rooted in Maritime communities and then detail the narrator's melancholic, guilt-ridden acknowledgement of their inadequacy to provide a wholly satisfying purpose and meaning to his unfulfilled sense of potential. In the typical MacLeod narrative, we are introduced to narrators at a watershed moment in their lives when they can no longer acquiesce in the demands which their societies place upon them and so consign the organic unity of home to a realm of past experience which can no longer be sustained or retrieved. On occasions, we may indeed be invited to believe that such an organic unity is part of a grand operation of fictionalization: a strategic deployment of memory which does not simply involve remembering and embellishing, but also, and perhaps most importantly, a process of selective forgetting.

A whole range of anxiety-ridden narratorial negotiations with the originary community are constantly being rehearsed in MacLeod's stories and they constitute one of the dominant tropes of his writing. The melancholia resulting from these confrontations clearly suggests archetypal motifs, widely available as cultural referents, of the wanderer's or voyager's departure from/return to the primal scene of affective ties. However, it has also encouraged critics to identify traces of a potentially Romantic nostalgia for a purer, more integrated pattern of existence (here of Old World clan social structures with their bodies of mythic knowledge) in opposition to the fractured identities necessitated by participation in a disorienting urbanized environment. Colin Nicholson has proposed that “alongside the informing lyricism, there is also in MacLeod's writing an abiding note of loss and of regret, with the Scottish allusions seeming to operate like a kind of choric threnody.”6 Most frequently, MacLeod's narrators impose upon themselves an anguished experience of cultural bereavement prompted by the realization that ties of kinship and ethnic allegiance must be neglected in order to fully recover an authentic sense of selfhood. Nonetheless, the thematic thrust in these short stories gravitates irresistibly towards questions of legitimacy and origination as axes of meaning; and the ensuing textual debates are played out against the backdrop of the dilemmas of the Gaelic diaspora: for example the social ruptures occasioned by the decay of traditional working practices and the resulting migration of labour; the disintegration of ethnic certainties and concepts of sanctity; and the necessary interrogation of the family as a basic social (and personal) building block.7 MacLeod himself, born in Saskatchewan and raised in coal-mining communities of Alberta, returned at the age of ten to the agricultural settlements of his forefathers in Nova Scotia: “My ancestors left Scotland for Canada in 1791. They left from the Isle of Eigg and went to Nova Scotia on a ship under the command of somebody called Colonel Fraser. They've been in Nova Scotia ever since.”8 His short stories insistently underline that whatever the differences which separate the inhabitants of his fictionalized Maritime communities, they share the traumas of the rootless:

The houses and their people, like those of the neighbouring towns and villages, were the result of Ireland's discontent and Scotland's Highland Clearances and America's War of Independence. Impulsive emotional Catholic Celts who could not bear to live with England and shrewd determined Protestant Puritans who, in the years after 1776, could not bear to live without.9

As his short stories unfold, the acknowledgement of migrant identities can constitute the raw material for narratorial self-invention, but more generally it emerges as a valuable marker of social difference in a world gravitating towards frightening uniformity. Even when the linguistic ties of Gaelic may be lapsing amongst his characters, MacLeod is keen to indicate the ways in which they may maintain a dialogue with their cultural inheritance:

Hundreds of miles hence when we stop by the roadsides in Quebec and Ontario we will find small sprigs of this same spruce still wedged within the grillework of our cars or stuck beneath the headlight bulbs. We will remove them and take them with us to Africa as mementos or talismans or symbols of identity. Much as our Highland ancestors, for centuries, fashioned crude badges of heather or of whortleberries to accompany them on the battlefields of the world.10

The textual representation of Celtic origin (and perhaps celticity) as an organizing principle for identity construction and cultural control permeates the whole of MacLeod's oeuvre. Scholarship on MacLeod's short stories has been keen to draw attention to the strategic deployment of the Gaelic language and mythology in his thematic probings into possibilities of human belonging: Arnold E. Davidson, for example, has illuminatingly explored the Gaelic symbolism in MacLeod's writing of Da Shealladh, second sight; buidseachd, an evil spell; the cù mòr glas à bhàis, the great grey dog of death; and the title of Mac am Amharuis, son of uncertainty. He comes to the persuasive conclusion that “in a number of the stories we even see a clear connection between physical displacement, impending linguistic dispossession, and the origins of the story itself.”11 MacLeod's finely-wrought stories can draw the reader convincingly into a Romantic landscape apparently pulsating with invisible or supernatural forces like the great grey dog of death in “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” or the eerie landscape of “In the Fall”: “Each day dawns duller and more glowering and the waves of the grey Atlantic are sullen and almost yellow at their peaks as they pound relentlessly against the round smooth boulders that lie scattered as if by a careless giant at the base of the ever-resisting cliffs.”12 However, MacLeod is equally interested in the ways in which late twentieth-century societies process these Celtic habits of thinking whilst negotiating the profoundly volatile patterns of their everyday lives: “‘The MacCrimmons were said to be given two gifts,’ she says, ‘the gift of music and the gift of foreseeing their own deaths. Those gifts are supposed to follow in all their bloodlines. They are not gifts of the ordinary world.’” In this instance, the wry narrator concludes, “vaguely I think that they do not look much like people who are supposed to have the ‘gift’ of foreseeing their own deaths.”13

MacLeod's readers are repeatedly invited to scrutinize the reasons why his heroes are held in captivity by narratives of the past. Nicholson stresses that “[…] one of the things [MacLeod] is doing is memorializing an immigrant culture from the Highlands and Islands at a time when its historical purchase in Nova Scotia begins to slip: both memorializing and, since he is writing in English, enacting that moment of slippage.”14 The irrepressible determination on the part of many of MacLeod's narrators to articulate their creativity in terms of exits from communities leads to an anguished process of self-analysis and recrimination. Nevertheless, on certain occasions, MacLeod's readers may also be encouraged to believe that his narrators acknowledge fully the desire for change, but are paralysed mentally by their ingrained commitment to the burden of historical obligations—and even to exult in them for all their constraints. In this way, his narratives can appear at points to chronicle the evolution of a death instinct:

[…] Sometimes when seeing the end of our present our past looms ever larger because it is all we have or think we know. I feel myself falling back into the past now, hoping to have more and more past as I have less and less future. My twenty-six years are not enough and I would want to go farther and farther back through previous generations so that I might have more of what now seems so little.

[…] And now, strangely enough, I do not know if that is what I hate and so must leave, or if it is the fact that now there is not even that mine, awful as it was, to go to, and perhaps it is better to have a place to go to that you hate than to have no place at all.15

Frank O'Connor has proposed that such narrative foci upon cultural marginalization and heroic/destructive individualism are the proper territory of the short story:

[…] the novel and the short story, though they derive from the same sources, derive in a quite different way, and are distinct literary forms; and the difference is not so much formal […] as ideological. I am not, of course, suggesting that for the future the short story can be written only by Eskimos and American Indians: without going so far afield, we have plenty of submerged population groups. I am suggesting strongly that we can see in it an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time—tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests.16

This mechanism of cultural affirmation and critique is crucial as a structuring device in MacLeod's work. The pre-migratory pattern of existence for his communities is apprehended through textual and/or oralized relationships with myth, song and family lore; and they express a yearning for an organic unity which is constantly being unpicked and reinterpreted by the younger generation:

The darkness of the midnight phone call seems somehow to fade with the passing of time, or to change and be recreated like the ballads and folktales of the distant lonely past. Changing with each new telling as the tellers of the tales change, as they become different, older, more bitter or more serene. It is possible to hear descriptions of phone calls that you yourself have made ten or fifteen years ago and to recognize very little about them except the undeniable kernel of truth that was at the centre of the messages they contained.17

A fellow Canadian writer, Hugh Hood, has proposed that “story is very close to liturgy, which is why one's children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The scribe ought not to deviate from the prescribed form. That is because the myths at the core of the story are always going on […]. […] Myth exists to give us this reassurance of the persistence of some of the fundamental forms of human action.”18 However radical the interrogation of the relevance of pre-migrant cultural forms to the reality of Canadian life at the end of the twentieth century may be, MacLeod's narratives clearly return to the customs and mythologies of a Gaelic past in order to posit an experiential alternative to that of the urban refugee. Gaelic referents furnish MacLeod's narrators with the possibilities of self-evaluation and spiritual meditation. In direct comparison with Hood's line of vision on the significance of story, the short story theorist Charles E. May has argued “tentatively” that “in their very shortness, short stories have remained close to the original source of narrative in myth, folktale, fable, and fairy tale.”19 Interestingly MacLeod in his writing can both rehearse highly ritualized narratives of archetypal homecomings and departures, and also ironize the Romanticized search for myths of belonging:

Many of the letters in the later years came from the folklorists who had “discovered” him in the 1960s and for whom he had made various tapes and recordings. And he had come to be regarded as “the last of the authentic old-time Gaelic singers.” He was faithfully recorded in the archives at Sydney and Halifax and Ottawa and his picture appeared in various scholarly and less scholarly journals; sometimes with the arms of the folklorists around him, sometimes holding one of his horses and sometimes standing beside his shining pickup truck which bore a bumper sticker which read “Suas Leis A' Ghaidlig.” Sometimes the articles bore titles such as “Cape Breton Singer: The Last of His Kind” or “Holding Fast on Top of the Mountain” or “Mnemonic Devices in the Gaelic Line”—the latter generally being accompanied by a plethora of footnotes.20

In the typical MacLeod narrative, the older Nova Scotians in the community are compelled to respond to the ominous return of the narrator and his threatening experience of cultural difference. In the majority of cases, they do this by affirming cultural fixity, securing their tenuous economic place on Cape Breton with the authority of practices and habits of thinking articulated by generations of Maritimers. Nonetheless, the homecoming ritual which is so frequently enacted in MacLeod's work is not only about the return to the primal scene of knowledge, it focuses equally upon the relentless human endeavour to rewrite the past, to confer new meanings upon it, and to render the home environment more tractable to personal development. The various human desires that MacLeod chronicles to reconfigure the cultural expectations in Cape Breton are intimately linked to the narrators' desperation to consolidate a present or future identity—even if it involves investing the Maritime scene with ambitions and appetites which have no reality outside the narrator's ego. MacLeod clearly exploits the extended family unit of his Cape Breton as a prime textual space in which contradictory discourses of subjectivity can be pounded out. His narrators are most frequently found to be products of cultural cross-pollination occasioned by changes in patterns of labour, marriage or education. As the various intrigues unfold, these narrators are shown to attempt (for the most part unsuccessfully) to tinker with inherited narratives of personal and communal history, so that the discrepancies between a seemingly innocent, Edenic clan culture and the potential offered by urban patterns of existence can be realigned in a more sympathetic manner, sympathetic that is to the narrators.

[…] It is a strange and lonely thing to lie awake at night and listen to your parents making love in the next room and to be able even to count the strokes. And to know that they really do not know how much you know, but to know that they do know that you know; and not to know when the knowledge of your knowing came to them any more than they know when it came to you. And during these last four or five years lying here while the waves of embarrassed horniness roll over me, I have developed, apart from the problems of my own tumescent flesh, a sort of sympathy for the problem that must be theirs and for the awful violation of privacy that all of us represent.21

The textual representation of alienation in which MacLeod's narrators engage at such moments links closely with the Bakhtinian construct of the grotesque, whereby the intimated display of the body and its needs is associated with the transgression of prevailing social conventions. In this context the human body becomes a focus in the erosion and displacement of cultural boundaries and expectations.22 The bodily motions of the familial members in MacLeod's congested homestead are no longer contained and articulated within established modes; instead we are drawn into a world of excess, in this case in which the child is negotiating his anxiety-ridden entry into the realm of adulthood. The coupling of the parents constitutes an initiatory spectacle involving forbidden knowledge and places the narrator in yet another culturally liminal position—a threshold area (limen) leading to a definitive dislocation from the family in this particular short story. The creative energy stimulated by such knowledge acts as a trigger mechanism for the narrator's departure. Appositely in this context, Bakhtin reminded his own readers that “the better a person understands the degree to which he is externally determined, the closer he comes to understanding and exercising his real freedom.”23 MacLeod's chastened heroes return to and redigest the scenes of their entry into adulthood for a variety of reasons: perhaps to exorcize persisting feelings of guilt; to express a yearning for reappropriation by the originary culture; or to complete the creation of the urbanized identity, for example.

For I must not become as my father whom I now hear banging the stove-lids below me as if there were desperate rush about it all and some place that he must be in a very short time. Only to go nowhere. And I must not be as my grandfather who is now an almost senile old man, nearing ninety, who sits by the window all day saying his prayers and who in his moments of clarity remembers most his conquests over coal, and recounts tales of how straight were the timbers he and my father erected in the now caved-in underground drifts of twenty-five years ago when he was sixty-two and my father twenty-five and I not yet conceived.24

Michelle Gadpaille justly argues that “MacLeod uses the seemingly commonplace dialectics of loss and recovery, giving and receiving, vision and blindness, to structure his first-person narratives, but he vividly reanimates old concepts of blood and family and belonging.”25 Indeed, the detailed depiction of the determinants which govern the subject's experience of life in society is a realist undertaking which is foregrounded throughout MacLeod's collections of short stories. Persistently, he chooses to focus upon members belonging to the lower economic social strata and often at a clearly defined chronological point. Moreover, MacLeod's careful particularization of a given social reality through narrative is important in that it serves to convince his reader of the verisimilitude of his textual visions, even if the accumulation of detail in itself is not integral to the furthering of the intrigue:

On the twenty-eighth day of June, 1960, which is the planned day of my deliverance, I awake at exactly six A.M. to find myself on my eighteenth birthday, listening to the ringing or the bells from the Catholic church which I now attend only reluctantly on Sundays. “Well,” I say to the bells and to myself, “at least tomorrow I will be free of you.” And yet I do not move but lie quietly for a while looking up and through the window at the green-poplar leaves rustling softly and easily in the Nova Scotian dawn.26

MacLeod repeatedly employs mimetic devices of realism which, for example, may reproduce the cadences of Maritime speech, chronicle minute changes in social relations and psychological motivation, textualize external details of the Maritime historical development and economic decline into order to anchor his short stories firmly within a plausible reality.27 It has become a critical commonplace in MacLeod scholarship to draw attention to the sustained deployment of a present-tense first-person narration in the majority of his short stories as one of his principal techniques for securing profound engagement on the part of the reader.28 MacLeod himself acknowledges the prime significance of this narrative line of vision in his work: “In that mode you can be tremendously intense. I just like that. I think that individuals are very interested in telling their own stories, and to adapt this persona is very effective in just riveting the listener.”29 One of the reasons for “riveting” the reader in this way is to sharpen our awareness of the individual, human implications of social and economic collapse. Social critique forms an integral part of these narratives; and specificities concerning diasporic experience or economic recession are intimately linked with the narrators' disaffection and understanding of the trajectories which their lives have taken. The transformation of the mining industry, for example, in his native land has clearly affected MacLeod deeply (“My father and his five brothers all worked in the mines at one time or another, and every one of them was mutilated—lost one eye, lost a hand, had their bones calcified.”30); and profoundly marks the worlds of many of his short stories: “The little mine paid very low wages and was poorly equipped and ventilated and since it was itself illegal there were no safety regulations.”31 Repeatedly, his narrators choose to detail the destructive ways in which large industrial concerns and the pressures of urban markets are corroding the infrastructures of his Maritime communities:

[…] The boats presently riding on the Gulf are after a variety of “ground fish,” with some few after salmon. They are getting six cents a pound for hake and twelve for cod and no one has seen a haddock for a long, long time. In the cities of Ontario fresh cod sells for $1.65 a pound and the “dried cod” upon which most of us were raised and so heartily despised has become almost a delicacy which sells for $2.15 a pound.32

Accounts of the embittered struggles and defeats surrounding both the mining and fishing industries in the Maritime provinces are carefully used to feed the larger textual debates focusing on questions of cultural legitimacy and ownership: “The heat has been bad for fish and wells and the growth of green but for those who choose to lie on the beaches of the summer sun the weather has been ideal. This is a record year for tourists in Nova Scotia, we are constantly being told.”33 Again and again in MacLeod's short stories, the economic precariousness of Maritime communities is counterpointed with the cultural fragility of a Gaelic diaspora grafted onto a land now succumbing to vigorous urbocentrism:

[…] Twice the big boats have come from forty and fifty miles, lured by the promise of the grounds, and strewn the bottom with their traps and twice they have returned to find their buoys cut adrift and their gear lost and destroyed. Twice the Fisheries Officer and the Mounted Police have come and twice they have asked many long and involved questions and twice they have received no answers from the men leaning in the doors of their shanties and the women standing at their windows with their children in their arms. Twice they have gone away saying, “There are no legal boundaries in the Marine area”; “No one can own the sea”; “Those grounds don't wait for anyone.”

But the men and the women, with my mother dark among them, do not care for what they say, for to them the grounds are sacred and they think they wait for me.34

The profound implications of capitalist greed, urban condescension and cultural alienation upon MacLeod's Maritimers are accentuated by the grim resentment expressed within the communities themselves as they respond to the revisions in gender and class expectations occasioned by encounters with city dwellers: “[…] I could never see myself being owned by my woman's family”; “Well, time for the working class to go to bed. Good-night all.”35 A topos of MacLeod's short stories is the detailed investigation of the human cost for the extended Maritime family of the sprawl of urban values and prejudices: “‘Ten years,’ she snaps at my father, ‘ten years I've raised this child in the city of Montreal and he has never seen an adult drink liquor out of a bottle, nor heard that kind of language. We have not been here five minutes and that is the first thing he sees and hears.’”36 Similarly, MacLeod is frequently found to organize his narratives around encounters with grotesques who initially aggravate and then scramble the cultural expectations which the novice narrative voice had attempted to retain for his voyage of experience into an extra-Maritime “New World”:

“Lots of people around here marry niggers,” says the voice. “Guess they're so black underground they can't tell the difference in the light. All the same in the dark as the fellow says. Had an explosion here a few years ago and some guys trapped down there, I dunno how long. Eaten the lunches of the dead guys and the bark off the timbers and drinking one another's piss. Some guy in Georgia offered the ones they got out a trip down there but there was a nigger in the bunch so he said he couldn't take him. Then the rest wouldn't go. Damned if I'd lose a trip to Georgia because of a single nigger that worked for the same company. Like I say, I'm old enough to be your father or even your grandfather and I haven't even been to Vancouver.”37

Such characters may belong to an external world of experience, like this anonymous driver in “The Vastness of the Dark.” On other occasions, MacLeod can draw attention to the moral coarseness and stunted emotional life at work within the Maritime communities themselves, embodied in the actions of Carver and Sal in “The Tuning of Perfection,” for example, or the McAllesters in “Vision.” The deep discomfort involved in encounters with these characters in many ways operates as a catalyst for the narrator to review the nature of cultural obligations being placed upon him. In a typical narrative of familial alienation in “The Vastness of the Dark,” the narrator, teetering on the edge of departure from the community, chooses to dissect the daily routines of bodily movements which structure home life. His chronicle exposes the disintegration of language as a meaningful human resource and the reduction of the economicially depressed to automata:

[…] After he has gone downstairs to start the fire there will be a pause and perhaps a few exploratory coughs exchanged between my mother and me in an unworded attempt to decide who is going to make the next move. If I cough it will indicate that I am awake and usually that means I will get up next and follow the route of my father downstairs. If, on the other hand, I make no sound, in a few minutes my mother also will come walking through my room.38

The textual rhythm of silence and inadequate gesture which regularly punctuate a MacLeod text may clearly be interpreted in several ways. Janice Kulyk Keefer affirms, for example, that “MacLeod's Cape Bretoners possess a tragic knowledge of self and world that is all the more profound for the fact that they cannot speak it.”39 The very act of volubility is regarded with intense suspicion by the Maritime communities that MacLeod describes. The figure of the raconteur (like MacRae, the destroyer of horses in “In the Fall”) becomes a symbol of a vulgarity, and also that of a more brutal and yet nevertheless more potent mode of human self-assertion than is conventionally expressed in this society:

“How'd you like to have a pecker on you like that fella,” shouts MacRae into the wind. “Bet he's had his share and driven it into them little heifers a good many times. Boy you get hung like that, you'll have all them horny little girls squealen' for you to take 'em behind the bushes. No time like it with them little girls, just when the juice starts runnin' in 'em and they're finding out what it's for.” He runs his tongue over his lips appreciatively and thwacks his whip against the sodden wetness of his boot.40

Focusing upon the question of narrative structure, Gadpaille positions MacLeod within a larger grouping of Canadian short story writers who “after 1961 […] adopted modernist narrative strategies, writing realistic stories with a limited point of view that leads the narrative through a series of pointed moments—in which psychological truths outweigh the events of plot—to the achievement of revelation.”41 Clearly, there is a modernist emphasis in MacLeod's work to the extent that he concentrates on the dilemmas of the single subject attempting to engage with and to assimilate the challenges posed by the collapse of cultural and epistemological certainties. Moreover, the narrative motifs which are constantly rehearsed in his short stories have indeed encouraged critics to label his work with both “realist” and “modernist” tags … and most recently “post-modern” stickers have begun to appear. Umberto Eco has invited us to believe that “the postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognising that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently.”42 And this train of thought has been taken up vigorously by the Canadian critic Linda Hutcheon: “This is not a nostalgic return; it is a critical revisiting, an ironic dialogue with the past of both art and society, a recalling of a critically shared vocabulary of architectural forms.”43 There is clearly an irrepressible determination on the part of MacLeod's narrators to revisit the past and to maintain a dialogue with it; and it becomes increasingly apparent that at strategic points in his short stories this textual motif can indeed be parodied and ironized in a variety of ways. MacLeod's irony is most frequently reserved for those cameo roles of the urban folklorists wandering in a foreign land—the would-be cultural trappers:

The tourists were equipped with tape recorders and my father sang for more than three hours. His voice boomed down the hill and bounced off the surface of the harbour, which was an unearthly blue on that hot August day, and was then reflected to the wharf and the fishing shanties where it was absorbed amidst the men who were baiting their lines for the next day's haul. […] In the winter they sent him a picture which had been taken on the day of the singing. On the back it said. “To Our Ernest Hemingway” and the “Our” was underlined. There was also an accompanying letter telling how much they had enjoyed themselves, how popular the tape was proving and explaining who Ernest Hemingway was.44

However, MacLeod is generally reluctant to place the Maritimer under such a comic lens; indeed, when this subject is under textual inspection the most frequent gravitational pull is towards that of sentiment.45 The post-modern label is perhaps the least adhesive of those deployed so far in MacLeod scholarship. With reference to the questions of loss and nostalgia in our encounters with the past, Jean-François Lyotard underlined in his essay The Postmodern Condition that “turn-of-the-century Vienna was weaned on this pessimism […]. There is no need to start all over again. […] Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative. It in no way follows that they are reduced to barbarity.”46 Whilst much post-modern writing exults in the experience of cultural plurality and hybridization, the dominant narratorial responses in the encounter (or re-encounter) with Cape Breton society are those of nostalgia, guilt and betrayal. MacLeod's readers may like to identify (potentially post-modernist) realms of transculturation, contact zones in which very disparate cultural influences collide and negotiate with each other in highly unstable, if not reversible, hierarchical relationships. However, instead of emphasizing the possible empowering and dynamic nature of these contact zones, MacLeod invariably favours a more modernist emphasis upon melancholia and longing for a lost cultural unity of experience in the dénouements to his texts.

The cycles of narrative grieving which unfold in a large number of his short stories act frequently as stimuli to an important phase in narratorial self-knowledge, reminiscent of the staging of the epiphany in the modernist short story. Keefer argues persuasively, for example, that “the characters driven from the coal towns and fishing villages MacLeod so powerfully evokes are never identified as writers-in-embryo, but they all possess the education and sensibility to be accomplished tellers of their own stories.”47 In this way, the revisiting of scenes of formative experience engenders the possibility of accessing new bodies of knowledge and securing new and richer identities:

By noon after a succession of short tides in a series of oddly assorted vehicles I am finally across the Strait of Canso, off Cape Breton Island and at last upon my way. It is only when I have left the Island that I can feel free to assume my new identity which I don like carefully preserved new clothes taken from within their pristine wrappings. It assumes that I am from Vancouver which is as far away as I can imagine.

I have been somehow apprehensive about even getting off Cape Breton island, as if at the last moment it might extend its gigantic tentacles, or huge monstrous hands like my grandfather's to seize and hold me back.48

The intertextual referents in many of MacLeod's short stories constitute one of the most significant ways in which history is reconsidered in his narratives. In establishing such narrative liaisons with legacies from a collective, indeed pan-cultural past, MacLeod can be seen variously to scrutinize, appropriate and interrogate the very concept of creativity, cultural innovation, and the construct of the nation through literature: he himself declares that “[…] there is the feeling that regional writing is not good enough, but […] most of the world's great literature begins in the regional; […]. So if you look at Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens—though that's the big city—it's still a regional world. Jane Austen is regional. […] It's an issue that arises naturally with the idea, for example, of a Maritime literature; there's a current notion that this kind of writing gives people a confidence in themselves, that they can see themselves out there in the literature.”49 MacLeod's reader may often discern an ironic dialogue with the past in his careful configuration of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts, for example, within his own narratives. In “The Vastness of the Dark,” Great Expectations is found to be lying strategically on the family table. Elsewhere, in “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” the alienated narrator confides to the reader that “[…] the room is full of sound. Like a foolish Lockwood I approach the window although I hear no voice. There is no Catherine who cries to be let in.” In the forbidden zone of the pool hall in “The Golden Gift of Grey,” the narrator feels “[…] a strange sensation and kinship with those boys in the F. Scott Fitzgerald stories who practice and practice but never play until a certain moment comes along in their lives and changes them forever.”50 Nicholson convincingly argues that “[MacLeod's] literary accomplishment in giving line and form to the people of Nova Scotia is disconcerted by the fact that his mastery of English literary discourse itself marks a process of change and slippage from historic origins. So it is hardly surprising that the echoing resonances which characterise his writing prevent any easy assimilation into the present which his stories adumbrate.”51 Like his narrators, MacLeod proposes that one of the principal ways in which we make sense of ourselves is through the creative interpretation of our textual relations with the past. The anxiety-ridden encounter of the Maritimer child in an economically depressed area with the print culture of “great literature” is constantly re-enacted in MacLeod's stories and generally serves to aggravate further the already embittered family unit: “I never though a son of mine would choose useless books over the parents that gave him life”:

By March we were very far behind and although I began to work very hard in the evenings I knew it was not hard enough and that there were but eight weeks left before the opening of the season on May first. And I knew that my mother worried and my uncle was uneasy and that all of our lives depended on the boat being ready with her gear and two men, by the date of May the first. And I knew then that David Copperfield and The Tempest and all of those friends I had dearly come to love must really go forever. So I bade them all good-bye.52

The most common locus of intertextuality in MacLeod's stories is the narratorial engagement with the textual world of Thomas Hardy—a figure who has loomed large in MacLeod's interests as an academic.53 In “The Boat,” for example, the narrator's mother reminds him explicitly “of the women of Thomas Hardy, particularly Eustacia Vye, in a physical way.”54 Joyce Carol Oates has affirmed that if she were “to name a single underlying motive for MacLeod's fiction, I would say that it is the urge to memorialize, the urge to sanctify.”55 One of the ways in which MacLeod may be seen to “sanctify” the past and its textual remains is by mythologizing the present: he does this by tapping and celebrating the authority of cultural legacies with the vocabulary of literary referents, folkloric archetypes and the textual voices of legend: “Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond”; “My grandmother is very tall with hair almost as white as the afternoon's gulls and eyes like the sea over which they flew”; “He thought then of the awful violence that was within his father; a something that rumbled deep below like some subterranean mountain stream of roaring white water, splashing and pounding dark rocks within deep unseen caves.”56 This narratorial instinct to monumentalize the parental figure which is widespread in MacLeod's work emerges ultimately as a salt gift, for it serves to magnify radically the personal experience of perceived treachery when the narrators attempt to sever ties of kinship.

However, returning to the particular stylistic influence of Hardy upon MacLeod: in direct comparison with those of the Victorian novelist, MacLeod's narratives are organized in such a way that their dominant reflex when confronted with the onset of the sprawl of urban value systems and the violation of the nurturing Maritime environment is to exploit the device of pathos. A notable example of this occurs in the early story “In the Fall”: “They are talking about old horse Scott who has been with us all of my life. My father had been his driver for two winters in the underground and they had become fond of one another and in the time of the second spring, when he left the mine forever, the man had purchased the horse from the Company so that they might both come out together to see the sun and walk upon the grass.”57 Indeed, on some occasions, the familiar nineteenth-century textual resources of sentiment, melodrama and the pathetic fallacy can come a little too readily to MacLeod's pen and, as a result, potential narrative tensions are squandered in the descent into Hardyesque excesses:

[…] At that time and in those sounds she realized that life for her and for her children would never be the same. She was twenty-six and expecting her seventh child.

Later she and her older children hitched the best of their brown-dappled horses to the wood sleigh and went forth to meet their husband and father for the last time. The children cried and the tears froze to their reddened cheeks. The horse began to snort and tremble long before he reached the rigid, log-like figure and then to rear and plunge. Finally he lunged to the side, breaking the shafts of the precious sleigh and adding another stick of destruction to the steadily mounting pile. They had had to abandon the sleigh then and return with the horse and then come back again with the children's coasting sleigh and lengths of rope with which to bind the grizzly burden it was to bear.58

In the heated debate over critical labelling, MacLeod could be seen to transport his readers into (potentially post-modernist) realms of intertextual figurings, ruptured chronologies and assaults upon the metanarratives of Truth, Progress and Logic: there are indeed metatextual moments in MacLeod's work in which he encourages us to reflect upon the constructedness of narrative itself. Nonetheless, convinced of this writer's realist credentials, Elroy E. E. Deimart is most persuasive in his assertion that MacLeod “is really using the technique not to undercut the verisimilitude or to draw attention to the artifice, but contrarily to strengthen the mimesis, the believability, and the reliability of the narrator as an unprofessional confessional story-teller.”59

One final context in which we may like to consider MacLeod with reference to an end of history is that of existentialism. There has been a degree of critical readiness to inscribe MacLeod's short stories within a grand philosophical narrative: Berces, for example, affirms that “the nature of MacLeod's thought can be readily identified as existential by the author's repeated concern with several aspects of the human condition, in particular with choice, freedom, becoming, alienation, exile, other people, and death. […] The very harshness and simplicity of [MacLeod's characters'] living conditions, the physical demands imposed upon them by their work, a sense of standing still or losing ground in a changing world, all provide—to use the mythic symbolism of Albert Camus—a Sisyphean context in which the human spirit is seen striving to affirm its most basic values rather than submitting to the weight of necessity. MacLeod's commitment to the dignity and integrity of the creative human subject attempting to forge his or her own destiny by disengaging from ties of received thinking and dependent identities is clearly relevant here. His readers are not primarily invited to look for the hand of God in the daily cycle of Maritime experience; and his narrators are confronted with a sequence of thorny dilemmas prompted by shame, suffering and a growing knowledge of mortality which complicate and enrich their understanding of the human condition.60 Nonetheless, Albert Camus contends finally that “il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.” MacLeod offers no such comfort.61 Very few, if any, of his narrators light upon an authentic sense of self unhampered by past illusions and obligations; in fact, they may seem to write themselves relentlessly into an undying narrative of History which chronicles the embittered struggles of the Gaelic diaspora in the Maritimes:

The reality of where I am and of what I think he is going to do seems now to press down upon me as if it were the pressure of the caving-in roof which was so recently within my thoughts. Although it is still hot I roll up the windows of the car. The people on the street regard me casually in this car of too bright red which bears Ontario licence plates. And I recognize now upon their faces a look that I have seen upon my grandfather's face and on the faces of hundreds of the people from my past and even on my on when seeing it reflected from the mirrors and windows of such a car as this. For it is as if I am not part of their lives at all but am only here in a sort of movable red and glass showcase, that has come for a while to their private anguish-ridden streets and will soon roll on and leave them the same as before my coming; part of a movement that passes through their lives but does not really touch them.62

Indeed, rather than Camus' existentialism, it would seem that Julia Kristeva's construct of abjection might yield a much more persuasive theorized reading of MacLeod's two short story collections:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. […] The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I. […] It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.63

Lyotard declared curtly in The Postmodern Condition that “simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”64 MacLeod chooses not to position his narrating heroes in the midst of a fully-fledged post-modern environment of relentless social fragmentation, unstable utterance, vigorous self-referentiality and the collapse of historical fixity. His stories may be seen to greet the metanarratives of God and Progress, for example, with “incredulity,” but those of Self, Meaning and History, amongst others, still prevail as organizing (if not comforting) principles for human existence:

“I know, Ma,” says my father, “I know that and I appreciate it all, everything. It is just that, well somehow we just can't live in a clan system anymore. We have to see beyond ourselves and our own families. We have to live in the twentieth century.”

“Twentieth century?” says my grandmother spreading her big hands across her checkered apron. “What is the twentieth century to me if I cannot have my own?”65


  1. Alistair MacLeod cited in Colin Nicholson, “Signatures of Times: Alistair MacLeod and His Short Stories,” Canadian Literature, 107 (1985), 94

  2. “Existential Maritimer: Alistair MacLeod's The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,Studies in Canadian Literature, 16, 1 (1991), 115

  3. “The Tuning of Perfection,” As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992 p. 93. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  4. “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989 p. 69. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963, p. 21.

  6. “Alistair MacLeod,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 21, 1 (1986), 197.

  7. Exploring the larger implications of the diasporic experience, MacLeod affirms that “I think the world is full of exiles—you meet them all over the place—people who would really rather be back in Greece, back in the former Yugoslavia or wherever … but who are unable to be where their hearts might lie.” See Laurie Kruk, “Alistair MacLeod: The World is Full of Exiles,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 20, 1 (1995), 157.

  8. See Nicholson, “Signatures of Time,” 91.

  9. “The Boat,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 108.

  10. “The Closing Down of Summer,” As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, p. 11.

  11. “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun: The Elusive Art of Alistair MacLeod,” Canadian Literature, 119 (1988), 41.

  12. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 7.

  13. “The Road to Rankin's Point,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 139, 147.

  14. “Alistair MacLeod,” 197.

  15. See respectively: “The Road to Rankin's Point” and “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 153, 32.

  16. The Lonely Voice, pp. 20-21.

  17. “The Closing Down of Summer,” As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, pp. 14-15.

  18. Cited in Charles E. May, ed., The New Short Story Theories, Athens: Ohio UP, 1994, p. xx.

  19. ibid. p. xxvi.

  20. “The Tuning of Perfection, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, p. 92.

  21. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 27.

  22. See, for example, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helen Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984, pp. 19-26.

  23. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, p. 139.

  24. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 30.

  25. The Canadian Short Story, Toronto: OUP, 1988, p. 106.

  26. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 24.

  27. See, for example, the reproduction of Maritime speech structures in “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 66. When asked whether he would consider himself a realist writer, MacLeod answered, “Yes, I think so. What I think of, in terms of realistic writing, is: telling the truth as I happen to see it.” See Kruk, “Alistair MacLeod: The World is Full of Exiles,” 159.

  28. See, for example, Nicholson, “Alistair MacLeod,” 191: “While the verbal unspooling of first-person narration counteracts a relative paucity of dialogue, the cross-weaving of time past with time present signifies the presence of history everywhere in his writing, as narrating memory speaks.”

  29. Cited in Nicholson, “Signatures of Time,” 92.

  30. Cited in Nicholson, “Signatures of Time,” 91.

  31. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 31. See also, for example, “The Closing Down of Summer,” in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, p. 9.

  32. “The Road to Rankin's Point,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 126-7.

  33. “The Closing Down of Summer,” As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, p. 7.

  34. “The Boat,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 124.

  35. “The Return,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 77.

  36. ibid. p. 74.

  37. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 46-7.

  38. ibid. p. 25.

  39. Under Eastern Eyes: A Critical Reading of Maritime Fiction, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 183.

  40. “In the Fall,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 15.

  41. The Canadian Short Story, p. 99.

  42. “Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable,” anthologized in Jencks, C., ed., The Post-Modern Reader, London: Academy, 1992, p. 73.

  43. “Theorising the Postmodern: Towards a Poetics,” ibid. p. 77.

  44. “The Boat,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 115-16.

  45. Reluctantly, Keefer concedes that “occasionally, [MacLeod] slides into sentimentality; most often, he achieves that haunting and powerful resonance characteristic of the Gaelic music which is his characters' best means to self-expression and communication,” Under Eastern Eyes, p. 182.

  46. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989, p. 41.

  47. Under Eastern Eyes, p. 234.

  48. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 40.

  49. Cited in Nicholson, “Alistair MacLeod,” 196.

  50. See respectively, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 33, 67, 95.

  51. “The Tuning of Memory,” Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Americaines, 20 (1987), 92.

  52. “The Boat,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 118-19.

  53. See John Ditsky, “‘Such Meticulous Brightness’: The Fiction of Alistair MacLeod,” The Hollins Critic, 25, 1 (1998), 9.

  54. “The Boat,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 108.

  55. See “Afterword,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 159.

  56. See respectively: “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, p. 118; “The Return” and “The Gold Gift of Grey,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, pp. 76, 98.

  57. “In the Fall,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 9.

  58. “The Road to Rankin's Point,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 131.

  59. Canadian Voices from the Region: W. O. Mitchell, Buckler, MacLeod, and Vanderhaeghe, Ph.D. thesis, 1994, University of Alberta, p. 182.

  60. “Existential Maritimer,” 114-16.

  61. Le Mythe de Sisyphe: Essai sur l'Absurde, Paris: Gallimard 1942, p. 168.

  62. “The Vastness of the Dark,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 48.

  63. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia UP, 1982, pp. 1, 4.

  64. The Postmodern Condition, p. xxiv.

  65. “The Return,” The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 79.

James Wood (review date 18 June 2001)

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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 States may have less to do with his reticence than with the source of his eloquence: Cape Breton, where his stories are rooted, an area remote geographically and culturally, where—to judge from MacLeod's fiction—the heirs of Scottish and Irish immigrants continue to work the land and the sea (mining, fishing, farming), frail participants in Canadian modernity, isolate, conservative, past-haunted, many preserving into recent times the Gaelic language and songs of their forbears. Eager to illuminate this ancestral rock, MacLeod has less in common with his North American coevals than with certain Scottish modern writers, such as the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, and the great Gaelic poet from the Isle of Skye, Sorley MacLean.

That this vision of Cape Breton—tending towards a strong monumentalism, strikingly uncomic and rather stonily noble, held in a graven, dignified prose that has put some readers in mind of Steinbeck—should be the only presentation of this world to be found in MacLeod's stories may alert us to a certain simplicity, even sentimentalism, in this often distinguished writer. MacLeod is reverently called a “true” writer or a “real” writer (with comparisons to Lawrence and Hardy in their most pastoral moods) by readers who may be merely crediting the undeniable permanence and “truth” of the people whom he describes and creates, their long tenacity, the pre-modern, steady, seasonal rhythms of their lives.

What is certain is that MacLeod's stories are as far as could be from the contemporary American norm, and this distance has doubtless clouded their recognizability. At present, the American short story is available in two apparently opposed modes—the quiet Carveresque and the noisy postmodern—which are actually holding friendly hands with each other behind their backs. The simple, traditional Carveresque story offers itself as a kind of victim of its own confusion, in which the narrator seems capable of no more than a fragment of incomprehension, a mere tuft of narration: this is what happened, the writer seems to say, but don't ask me to work it out. The impulse is the logical, if rotten, fruit of naturalism—or rather, of naturalism as it was transmuted by Flaubertian aestheticism. It is naturalistic in its egalitarian assumption that the writer is no more expert or subtle at working out reality than the reader; that we are all in this together and must blunder in communal democratic blindness. And it is a species of aestheticism in its assumption that the fragment presented is in itself beautiful enough to exist only in its abbreviated and uncomprehended state. It is as if the writer were saying: this is what happened, and it is so lovely that you should not need to ask me to understand it. Thus most of these kinds of short stories are shaped around an unexplained symbolic image or action.

The Carveresque story is often written in an English that at first glance seems a highly pressurized minimalism, but on deeper study reveals itself to be a mere babyish or busted English of thoughtless simplicity. In its refusal to take much note of place, history, or society, this story seems—like its characters—the victim of sensory deprivation. Its characters invariably speak to each other, if they are into conversation at all, in stringy glazed abruptnesses. Their conversation, in its complacent discontinuity, sounds as if each participant were on the phone speaking to a third party. If these characters have pasts at all, they are thinly offered. Instead they seem oddly stunned by the present, de-seeded and without the pith of affect. We do not see them change much in the Carveresque story; instead these stories photograph their stasis.

The noisy postmodern story, by contrast, is less a fragment than a scattering. It seems to be the opposite of the Carveresque story, and certainly sees itself as such. It is often long, richly and abundantly written, careless about form or controlling symbols, prosperous with information and facts and modern social data. It seems to carry neither the democratic assumptions nor the buried aestheticism of the Carveresque story. Often the writer is before us, showing a lot of plumage, and being distinctly cleverer and brighter and better informed than we feel ourselves to be. These stories are usually dominated by voice—either the writer's or a vivid narrator's.

Yet both modes of storytelling, in truth, assume that confusion is the modern burden, and that it must overpower literature. Thus both kinds of story are nowadays generally narrated in the first person, because third-person omniscience is feared for its antique wholeness. Third-person omniscience seems impossible, a bill sent from an official ghost. Yet if the Carveresque story trembles before its own confusion, the postmodern story greedily embodies it, overwhelming us with zany happenings and lurching italics and oral luridity. If the Carveresque story presents itself as the victim of its own confusion, the postmodern story presents itself as the confusion; but neither is bold enough to announce a comprehension of it. And the postmodern story, for all its volume, is often set—see Rick Moody's writing—in a kind of polar region of frozen communication in which, as in the Carveresque story, people speak to each other in torn and ruined utterances, incapable of meaningful communication. In this sense, there is no real difference between the noise of Pulp Fiction and the quieter sounds of American Beauty: whether we chatter knowingly about what Big Macs are called in France or silently watch a video of a windblown plastic bag in the suburbs (the controlling image in the latter film), we are coevals in evasion.

Alistair MacLeod's stories have nothing in common with this kind of American work. His stories, running to twenty or thirty pages, are customarily too long for the major magazines. They are written in an earnest, almost liturgical prose of careful simplicity and frequent beauty, and with a kind of clumsiness and carelessness about cliché that suggests a stern disdain for aestheticism. There is no comedy in MacLeod's stories (perhaps the largest claim against them, robbing his fiction of some crucial vitality), but there is also no fake simplicity, and no knowingness, no zaniness, no “information.”

MacLeod is indeed a real writer, but his strengths are inseparable from his weaknesses; the sincerity that produces his sentimentality also stirs his work to a beautifully aroused plainness. Still, the reader who comes without preparation to MacLeod's stories may feel them at first to be melodramatic, a melodrama often secured by the presence of a violent act or an unexpected death, or the revelation of a buried family secret. In “The Road to Rankin's Point,” a twenty-six-year-old man, who is dying of cancer, has returned to his grandmother's house in Cape Breton. The story begins with a sumptuous description of the colors and scents of summer on the Cape, but the more extreme coloration of the story's mechanics suddenly threatens to turn everything crimson-hued. We learn that many years ago, when the man's grandmother was a young woman, her husband fell off a cliff and died. On the day the young man returns, the rest of the old woman's large family are also arriving, to persuade her to cease living alone and to move into a home. The grandson silences the rest of his family by announcing that he will stay and live with his grandmother; they know of his sickness, she does not. Satisfied by this solution, the family leaves. That night, the grandson, roused by baying dogs, walks out of the house and finds his grandmother dead on the road at the spot at which her husband died so many years ago.

Even Hardy, the great melodramatist, might have hesitated before handing us these livid coils! But this is the kind of thing described by MacLeod's keenest supporters as having the “primitive” quality of the “ancient English and Scottish ballads.” The words are Joyce Carol Oates's, and in an afterword to the Canadian edition of one of MacLeod's volumes Oates writes that “these are tales of ritual-like initiation and sacrifice. … If I were to name a single underlying motive for MacLeod's fiction, I would say that it is the urge to memorialize, the urge to sanctify. This is a sense both primitive and ‘modernist’ that if one sets down the right words in the right talismanic order, the purely finite and local is transcended and the voiceless is given a voice.” And Frederick Busch testifies on the jacket of Island that “each story is a rite of passage, crucial to us all, mythical and particular at once … each story is a tolling, and every word feels true.”

Such commendations, written from the best motives, and partly accurate, nevertheless run the risk of condescension, of shrouding an exact judgment of MacLeod's work in a general amnesty, allowed because of the “ancient,” ballad-like material. It is true that there is a simple music to MacLeod's work, a music which seems choric and song-like; indeed, his characters often sing the old Gaelic songs. In “The Road to Rankin's Point,” the grandmother takes down from the wall “a very old violin [that] came from the Scotland of her ancestors, from the crumbled foundations that now dot Lochaber's shores.”

But if this is a music, MacLeod also writes it down, as it were, on modern staved music paper, using ordinary Western notation, and there is no reason for us not to judge it as such, rather than thanking him for bringing us squeaks and grunts from an old “oral tradition.” And judging MacLeod's writing in this way, it is hard not to be a little wary of a phrase like “from the Scotland of her ancestors, from the crumbled foundations that now dot Lochaber's shores.” Something very large and complicated—an entire emigration—is being too easily compacted here; an atmosphere is being appealed to, somewhat gesturally, in order to soften us up, to put us in the right reverent mood for the recitation to come of the grandmother's old song. And “dot” sounds like the first verb that came into MacLeod's head; it belongs to tourist brochures (along with “razor-sharp claws,” the “roiled and angry” sea, “her dark and fearless eyes,” “she buries her fingers in my head,” or “bone of contention,” all found throughout his work, and the entire sentence that comes near the end of the story “The Vastness of the Dark”: “And perhaps this man has left footprints on a soul I did not know that I possessed.”).

Several of MacLeod's stories have a quality of emotional genre-painting, and display a willingness to let the complexities of character die into stereotype. In many of them, the men are white-haired and silent, strong men of action, and the women dark-haired with sharp tongues. The narrator of “The Boat” describes his mother in ways that seem incredible: “My mother was of the sea, as were all of her people, and her horizons were the very literal ones she scanned with her dark and fearless eyes.” She never escapes the prison of this characterization of her, and is presented as angry at her daughters for wasting their time reading books (“In the next world God will see to those who waste their lives reading useless books when they should be about their work,” she says at one point). When each of her six daughters marries, none marries a fisherman, and the narrator comments that “my mother never accepted any of the young men, for in her eyes they seemed always a combination of the lazy, the effeminate, the dishonest and the unknown. … And in the end she did not really care, for they were not of her people and they were not of her sea.”

Perhaps this stony finality does indeed give “The Boat” a ballad-like quality, but it also lends the story a weakening simplicity. The reader revolts a little: she never accepted any of her sons-in-law, ever? Is this likely? And if MacLeod were to reply that it is simply true, that it is based on a real mother who really was like this, then the reader is surely entitled to object that this blocky stubbornness is not interesting, that it has no human complexity, that it is a cliché. We deserve a more quizzical and less “sanctifying” account from this woman's literate son.

MacLeod's dialogue is sometimes unreal. In “The Return,” a man who was born in the region returns to Cape Breton with his wife and son. Much of the tension of the story is a familiar one, at least to readers of provincial English fiction: the son who went away, married a woman from a more sophisticated area, became a professional (in this case a lawyer), and is now returning to the beloved but now somewhat alien simplicity that produced him. A familiar but distinguished theme—yet alas, MacLeod presses very hard on it. As soon as the son walks into his parents' house, his father, who still works in the mine despite his advanced age, berates him for the infrequency of his visits, and complains that his son is “owned” by his wife: “It seems so far away and we get old so quickly and a man always feels a certain way about his oldest son. I guess in some ways it is a good thing that we do not all go to school. I could never see myself being owned by my woman's family,” says the father. Then a page later, the man's mother laments that her lawyer son is “lost to us,” and launches a heavy tirade:

It seems that we can only stay forever if we stay right here. As we have stayed to the seventh generation. Because in the end that is all there is—just staying. I have lost three children at birth but I've raised eight sons. I have one a lawyer and one a doctor who committed suicide, one who died in coal beneath the sea and one who is a drunkard and four who still work the coal like their father and those four are all that I have that stand by me. It is these four that carry their father now that he needs it, and it is these four that carry the drunkard, that dug two days for Andrew's body and that have given me thirty grandchildren in my old age.

To which her son replies, “I know, Ma … I know that and I appreciate it all, everything. It is just that, well somehow we just can't live in a clan system any more. We have to see beyond ourselves and our own families. We have to live in the twentieth century.” To which his mother replies: “Twentieth century? … What is the twentieth century to me if I cannot have my own?”

This passage has little value; it deserves the accompaniment of little finger-violins. It deserves parody: it is parody! It is maudlin, easy, and sneakily propagandistic—with a quality almost of socialist realism. Again, it needs to be said that even if there are granite grannies who speak in this way, the mere existence in reality of such an obelisk does not license her existence in fiction, which supremely exists for the delicate examination of motive. In fiction, this woman is merely an unreal cliché.

And yet it is in this same story that MacLeod writes sentences of limpid beauty. Looking over the bay, the narrator, who is the ten-year-old son of the man who has returned, sees gulls, and thinks: “Overhead the gulls are flying inland, slowly but steadily, as if they are somehow very sure of everything. My grandfather says they always fly inland in the evening. They have done so as long as he can remember.” And watching the declining sun fall into the sea, the boy sees that “the sun is moving into the sea as if it is tired and the sea is very blue and very wide—wide enough it seems for a hundred suns.” The gulls moving as if somehow very sure of everything—is that not exactly how the measured rowing of gulls strikes us? The sun leaving as if tired—again, a fine image, with both the right “literary” or poetic quality while simultaneously the plausible vision of a ten-year-old boy. This is a kind of distinguished prose that puts one in mind of Chekhov's observation that the best description of the sea that he ever found was in a schoolboy's notebook: “The sea was very large.”

As bones sometimes grow stronger after being broken, so there is a sense in which, if MacLeod is sometimes a clumsy or heavy writer, it is only through this clumsiness, this passionate and sincere openness, that something true and fine emerges. A comparison with the poems and songs of Robert Louis Stevenson suggests itself. Doubtless, Stevenson was not a finished or even, at times, an accomplished poet. Yet his broken forms, his willingness to denude himself, to host sentimentality, yield a true music:

I have trod the upward and the
          downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell
          to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed
          the door.

MacLeod's stories have the feel of this simple lyric (I have quoted it in its entirety) by Stevenson. It becomes clear, for instance, that MacLeod's dialogue is not always intended to be “realistic” or even life-like; he is instead striving for a choric and liturgical effect. This is grating at times, and no invocation of Gaelic origins and oral tradition removes that grate, not least because these stories, unlike Stevenson's poems, are not just brief songs, but conventional stories set in actual places, with the usual machinery of verisimilitude and realism familiar to modern fiction in English.

Still, it must be admitted that there are stories in this book in which the song-like elements, the ballad-like melodramas, do not irritate or simplify, but work together with a prose of considerable sophistication to produce a sediment of complexity worthy of the best modern writing. “The Tuning of Perfection” concerns an old man originally from the Isle of Skye, named Archibald, who has been widowed many years, and who lives on the top of a mountain in Cape Breton. He is known all around as a great singer of the old Gaelic songs, and soon the folklorists and the academics from Toronto and elsewhere come to record his songs, these miraculous extensions of the past which have lived on into the modern age. Eventually, a television company from Halifax announces that it wants to film a family group from Cape Breton singing in Halifax at a festival. A member of the royal family will be in the audience, it is said; the program will be broadcast internationally. It is a great opportunity for those who are selected.

The old man and his family are the obvious favorites; but there is also a tough rival family, led by a toothless, roughened, but cocksure man called Carver, that is also in the running. The television producers arrive in Cape Breton, and put the families through their auditions. They ask Archibald to sing for them. He does, and MacLeod, with fluid grace, reproduces the song, in which the old man seems to be remembering his wife of many years ago:

Over lofty mountains lies
The dwelling place of my love,
One whose heart was always warm,
And whom I loved too dearly.
And behind the wall of stone
I would recognize your steps,
But how sad am I tonight
Because we're not together.
Still my love you will last
Like the rock beneath the sea,
Just as long as will the waves
That strike against it always.

But it is the Carver family, though very inferior singers, who win the contest to go to Halifax, because of Archibald's cussedness: he refuses to accede to the producers' request that the songs be shortened to televisual length of three minutes. These songs, he insists, must be sung in their stretched entirety, twenty or more verses and all.

Near the end of the story, Carver and friends visit the old man with a gift, boxes of bootlegged liquor. Carver is barely sober; some of his friends are drunk, and Carver has clearly been in some kind of fight. But he has come because he is grateful to the old man for his stubbornness: it has enabled the Carver clan to go to Halifax. Archibald is moved by the inappropriateness of the gift; he is known as the most abstemious man in the area. And as he watches Carver and his friends bring the boxes of drink into the kitchen, he envies them their “closeness and what the producer fellow had called their tremendous energy. And he imagined it was men like them who had given, in their recklessness, all they could think of in that confused and stormy past. Going with their claymores and the misunderstood language of their war cries to ‘perform’ for the Royal Families of the past. But he was not sure of that either. He smiled at them and gave a small nod of acknowledgement. He did not quite know what to say.”

The story is so fine because, although MacLeod dares a little surge of historical sentimentalism—“in that confused and stormy past”—this surge is ballasted by an otherwise complete lack of sentimentality. Carver and his friends are drunk, have been beaten up, and have flourished a ludicrous gift. And yet it is precisely these men who seem to Archibald at this moment to be the embodiments of the heroic Scottish past; and the Scottish past does not seem heroic, but suddenly “confused and stormy.” The delicacy with which the story is able to reach a long arm behind itself and to provoke the echoing past is possible in part because the story inverts itself and surprises the reader. Archibald, who would seem to be the heroic, legendary embodiment of the Scottish past, the keeper of dignified memory, proudly reusing modern blandishments, may not be the hero after all; it may be Carver and his clan who most truly embody the past. Needless to say, the beauty of this paradoxical conclusion is a long way from the trite myth-making of the exchanges in “The Return” and “The Boat.”

The book ends with another beautiful story, “Clearances,” which again enfolds within itself the sentimental and the unsentimental. A Cape Breton man old enough to have fought in World War II, and now widowed, recalls the early years of his happy marriage, and his time during the war. He remembers a visit to the nearby Prince Edward Island, and remembers that he and his wife, unaccustomed to such travel, did not really know what to do once on the island, so “they went to look at Condon's Woollen Mill because it was the name that was most familiar to them. … They did not get out of their car but merely looked at the woollen mill through the haze of the July heat. … Later his wife was to tell friends, ‘We visited Condon's Woollen Mill on Prince Edward Island,’ as if they had visited a religious shrine or a monument of historical significance and, he thought, she was probably right.” Moving around his house, the old man reflects that he still lives in the house built by his grandfather. The upstairs bedrooms were once full of his children, who have since grown up and moved away. “Now there was only himself and his dog, and when he visited the upstairs rooms they seemed like a museum that he had had a hand in creating.” This is an exquisite detail, and sets the tone of the story, a gentle, even-tempered lament, not maudlin but softly resigned.

Yet just as we begin to expect the maintenance of this tone, MacLeod relaxes his control, and the tale becomes sentimentally gestural. The old man remembers serving in the Canadian army, remembers taking a week's army leave in Scotland, and speaking Gaelic with a shepherd on the train, and watching from the windows “the stone foundations of a vanished people.” In Scotland, he researches his ancestors, wanders through graveyards. There follows an uninspiring passage about Scotland:

Where once people had lived in their hundreds and their thousands, there now stretched only the unpopulated emptiness of the vast estates with their sheep-covered hills or the islands which had become bird sanctuaries or shooting ranges for the well-to-do. He saw himself as the descendant of victims of history as the descendant of victims of history and changing economic times, betrayed, perhaps, by politics and poverty as well.

In the evenings around the hospitable whisky bottle he tried to explain the landscape of Cape Breton.

Here MacLeod has fallen again into striped brochure prose—this is a rather banal description of the Scottish Highlands (“shooting ranges for the well-to-do”) complete with a comfy evocation of “the hospitable whisky bottle.”

Yet the story recovers. Still busy with his memories, the man goes outside, and stands looking at a portion of his Cape Breton field, and reflects that “the spruce trees had been there and had been cleared and now they were back again. They went and came something like the tide, he thought, although he knew his analogy was incorrect.” This is lovely, for by admitting that the old man may clumsily have procured the wrong analogy, MacLeod enables it beautifully to become the right analogy, because it is right for this man. MacLeod gently suggests, without too deep a thematic impress, the links between the original Highland Clearances, in which crofters were driven by the English soldiers from their land, many of them emigrating to America and Canada, and the less eventful but more unavoidable and ceaseless clearance of land in order for it to be habitable.

Again, as at the end of “The Tuning of Perfection,” MacLeod is able to activate the past, to make it surely ring, by a most delicate retrieval. And this fineness passes through patches of crudity, like a dirty river cleansing itself by sheer force of motion. At such moments, and in such remarkable stories, Alistair MacLeod becomes a writer far removed not only from the contemporary North American noise, but also from the ballad tradition in which some of his readers wrongly want to place him. He becomes only himself, provokingly singular and rare, an island of richness.


Principal Works


Further Reading