Island: The Complete Stories

by Alistair MacLeod
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181

Island: The Complete Stories is a collection of sixteen stories, written between 1968 and 1999, in which the author Alistair MacLeod presents a haunting and soulful picture of his homeland in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—with the exception of the story "The Golden Gift of Grey," which is set in northern Indiana where MacLeod taught in the 1960s. In this collection the author depicts the struggle between the modern world with its selfish materialism and the historical, almost fairytale-like world of his childhood with its traditional values. This struggle is perhaps most evident in "The Tuning of Perfection," in which the protagonist falls victim to the materialism of the world and can barely save himself. In this story, as in many others in this collection, MacLeod presents a painful depiction of the way in which humans tend to betray animals. All of the author's stories in some way demonstrate the frailty of human relationships, especially when challenged by the lure of wealth, comfort, and materialism, but ultimately MacLeod's fiction in this collection show that despite all its struggles, life is far from meaningless.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882

Even though he had long been described as one of Canada’s finest writers, the general public became aware of Alistair MacLeod only after the publication of his bestselling first novel, No Great Mischief (1999). MacLeod is hardly prolific. Over a three-decade period, though he worked steadily on his short fiction, he produced just sixteen stories. All but one of them appeared initially in Canadian and American literary magazines, but they were later published in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood(1976) and in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), both of which had gone out of print when the success of the novel created a demand for MacLeod’s other work. Island: The Complete Stories was published in response to that demand.

Almost all of MacLeod’s works are set in Canada’s eastern provinces, mostly on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and almost all of his characters are descended from the Scottish Highlanders who were driven into exile during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but who tried to remain faithful to the values they brought with them to the New World. The one exception is “The Golden Gift of Grey,” which takes place in northern Indiana, where MacLeod taught during the 1960’s. However, like his other stories, it focuses on the conflict between traditional values and the selfish materialism of contemporary world.

In “The Golden Gift of Grey,” a father has brought his family from a coal camp in rural Kentucky, where they lived in a close-knit community but could hardly make ends meet, to Indiana, where he can make a decent living. However, he now sees his children rejecting everything he and his wife hold dear, from mountain music to simple virtues and parental authority itself. Jesse, the teenage protagonist, understands enough about his parents’ values to feel guilty about skipping school to gamble in a pool hall, but he convinces himself that by giving them the thirty-one dollars he has won, he can earn their forgiveness. His parents do not agree. They order him to return what they see as tainted money, and he feels compelled to obey them. However, when his fellow-gambler figures out a way that Jesse can keep the money without actually lying to his parents, Jesse is delighted. To him, this seems like a happy ending. Not only can he keep the money, but he thinks he that he has also found a true friend. In reality, though, Jesse has sold out his parents and the values by which they live. He has entered a world in which there is very little black and white but a great deal of grey.

Like the parents in “The Golden Gift of Grey,” the seventy-eight-year-old protagonist of “The Tuning of Perfection” has based his life on a belief in absolutes. Archibald is appalled by the way old values such as respect for nature, for life, and for truth are being discarded. He is shocked when he learns that the young mare he has just sold will be bred constantly, her urine used for human birth control pills, her colts destroyed. He is worried when he hears that the eagles he so admires are doomed; they will disappear just as soon as Nova Scotians begin using pesticides or herbicides.

The only glimmer of hope in Archibald’s lonely life comes when folklorists find him and show an interest in the old Gaelic songs he is more than willing to sing for them. Then a granddaughter asks him to help train a family group to compete in a Gaelic song contest, with the winning group to be sent to Halifax, where they will stay for six days, performing on radio and television and even appearing before members of the royal family. Archibald sees this as his chance to help preserve the songs his ancestors brought with them from the Highlands. However, most of the other singers, including his granddaughter, see the venture merely as a way to get a free vacation and to make a little money. They cannot understand Archibald’s reluctance to cut the songs to fit the promoters’ time schedule, nor can the promoters understand his insistence that narratives that are halted midway through will make no sense. After all, they argue, the audience does not know the language. Archibald cannot compromise. He refuses to cut the songs, and the promoters turn to a group that will sing nonsense syllables if they are paid enough.

However, MacLeod is too good a writer to leave his story at that. He knows that life is complicated, and he knows that even history is a matter of perception. Several days after Archibald has made his fateful decision, some of the men in the rival group arrive at his house, drunk and battle-scarred, bearing liquor they have bought for Archibald. Even though he does not drink, he accepts the gift with grace, and the encounter leads him to wonder about his own version of history. Perhaps, he thinks, the Scottish heroes of the past were not as upright as he imagines; perhaps it was men like these, ignorant, rough, and reckless, whose brave deeds were recounted in the songs he sings.

It is this habit of presenting several viewpoints even in a story where his sympathies are obvious that indicates how far MacLeod is from the sentimentality of which he has sometimes been accused. Certainly the situations he describes would lend themselves to a sentimental treatment. Often he writes about how human beings betray animals who have been loyal to them. For example, in “In the Fall,” an old horse is sent to be slaughtered because it would cost too much to feed him through the winter, and in “Winter Dog,” a dog is shot for being too protective, despite the fact that he had saved the protagonist’s life just two years before. Human beings are not necessarily any kinder to their own species. In “The Return,” a possessive wife has kept her husband away from his parents for ten years, and in “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” the only member of an elderly woman’s family who cares about her feelings is a grandson who is himself about to die.

However, MacLeod avoids sentimentality by placing these events in context. The younger child in “In the Fall” acts out his rage at his parents’ action; however, the older one sees his father’s reluctance and even understands his mother’s insistence. It is not his parents who are responsible for the horse’s death, he realizes, but their poverty. Similarly, in “Winter Dog,” it is perhaps understandable that the father can no longer defy his complaining neighbors; moreover, to a degree the protagonist is responsible, for he did not tell his parents about the dog’s rescuing him for fear of being punished for his own irresponsibility.

MacLeod also points out that there are also good reasons for what might be considered the heartless abandonment of the land and of the elderly people who still live on it. When it became evident that farming, mining, and fishing were no longer profitable, young people had to move to the cities, where they could do better. Since the author himself made such a migration, he can identify with the characters who choose to leave their families and their homes, while at the same time he understands why those who are left behind feel betrayed by their offspring.

“The Boat” is about a young man torn by such a choice. His mother comes from a family of fishermen, and she thinks of the life as a sacred calling. She is not pleased with the decisions her daughters have made. Instead of settling down with fishermen, they all married lazy, effeminate outsiders who took them to live in places she has never been and in luxury she cannot imagine. However, since she feels that “they were not of her people and they were not of her sea,” she is resigned to her daughters’ desertion. She still has one son, and though, like his father, he spends too much time with his books, she thinks that the sea is as much a part of him as it has always been of her. She looks forward to his eventually taking over the boat and the family business.

Since the narrator is the son, not the mother, the author is presenting her thoughts at second hand. However, they are even more significant in that they reveal the son’s sympathy for his mother and indicate how difficult it was for him to take a course of action he knew she would find devastating. MacLeod uses this same indirect approach when he has the son guess at what his taciturn father feels. Though he never explains to his son why he became a fisherman, it is obvious that he is much happier closeted with his books than he is at sea. In the end, the father is drowned, and his son leaves. Again, MacLeod emphasizes how complicated life can be, how difficult are the choices it forces upon us. The narrator cannot forget that his mother is poor, lonely, and bitterly disappointed in him, but at the same time, he keeps seeing the battered body of his drowned father, who gave up his life for his son’s future happiness.

In this story, as in many of the others, MacLeod stresses the limitations of human relationships. The narrator’s father and his mother may live in the same house, but each of them is alone. Couplings may produce offspring, but they do not offer any guarantees for the future. If he had not been killed, the young, red-haired man in “Island” might have returned to marry the lighthouse keeper’s daughter; if he had known that she was pregnant, the narrator of “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” might have come back to claim the girl he once loved and to be a father to their child. No one can be sure. In any case, even the happiest of marriages does not last forever. One of the two will die, and the other will be left quite alone, only too aware that, like the old lady in “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” their children regard them as just one more problem to be solved.

MacLeod is too clear-sighted to gloss over such bitter truths as the fact that living entails loss and leads to death. However, his fiction also reflects his belief that life is far from meaningless. His most sympathetic characters are just as involved in the battle between good and evil as their legendary ancestors were, and they are just as contemptuous about the odds against them. Like the old man in “Clearances,” they fight for values that are too often ignored and for a way of life that is rapidly vanishing. Like him, they face death armed with nothing but their own courage, and they die with their dogs beside them. Fortunately, Alistair MacLeod was inspired to immortalize them in fiction as haunting as a Gaelic song.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (January 1, 2001): 919.

Library Journal 126 (January 1, 2001): 159.

The New Republic 224 (June 18, 2001): 31.

The New York Times, March 1, 2001, p. E3.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 18, 2001): 6.

Publishers Weekly 247 (December 18, 2000): 54.

Time International 155 (May 8, 2000): 57.

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