The Closing Down of Summer

by Alistair MacLeod

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

“The Closing Down of Summer” is a first-person reminiscence of a veteran miner and crew foreman who contemplates the profound changes that have occurred in his profession and his life, relating the changes to larger cultural developments in the world.

The story opens in late August of an unusually warm summer in Cape Breton, home to the narrator and his crew mates, where they have been enjoying a brief holiday respite between assignments. Telegrams from the mining company head office in Toronto have been urgently summoning them to return and prepare for their next job, which will be in South Africa.

The men are staying together at a remote beach in Cape Breton, between their recent visits with their families and their return to the mines. Stretched out on the beach, the narrator looks at the others and notes the evidence on their bodies of the dangers of their work. Deep scars, missing fingers, and deformities of limbs testify to its hazards for these big, sturdy men.

The narrator knows that soon they will have to get in their big cars and drive to Toronto, but for a brief period, he determines to allow them all to enjoy the healing power of the sun. Thinking about the coming road trip, he affirms an ancient ritual: When they arrive in Toronto they will find small sprigs of spruce stuck in the grillwork of their cars, and they will take those sprigs with them to South Africa much as their Highland ancestors took similar talismans to the battlefields of the world where they fought for foreign kings.

Another ancient ritual to be reenacted is their visit, before they leave, to the community graveyard. There they will pray and share memories of fathers and brothers, close family and friends, many of whom met violent deaths in mines around the world. Specifically, the narrator remembers his brother’s horrible death, and the difficulties the family faced in bringing the body home and burying it in the family plot.

These rituals underscore their ties to a heroic past and to their community, their brotherhood as miners, and the dangers of their profession. In contrast the miner thinks about the life of his wife and their children. His wife now has a house full of modern conveniences and is well adapted to the contemporary world of sleek efficiency, security, and popular entertainment. She is insulated from the dirt and violence of the mining shacks and shafts in which he spends most of his life. Their children are insulated as well, having become white collar professionals who will not die young in foreign mines.

The miner is happy about this, yet there is also sadness because the widening rift between his world and theirs makes meaningful communication almost impossible. This sense of loss and separation is compounded by his growing deafness, another consequence of the drills and high explosives used in mining.

The rift between the contemporary world and that of the miner with the consequent loss of communication is evident in other ways as well. He and his crew, for example, are part of a miners’ chorus, singing the old Gaelic songs of their ancestors. These songs, which speak directly and powerfully to the emotions of the narrator and his crew, are now curiosities and historical artifacts to others, who never had or have lost the language and the cultural heritage necessary to respond to their meaning. He wants true speech, though; he wants to communicate, particularly to his family. He wants to tell them of his life—of the dangers, the skill, the heroism, the pride, and the value—but he feels its impossibility.

Days have passed. The summer is drawing to a close. The narrator realizes that the time has come to move on. As they set off for Toronto, the narrator remembers a fifteenth century Scottish lyric he once read, and thinks of himself as the knight in that lyric, on his final journey toward death.

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