Island: The Complete Stories Analysis
by Alistair MacLeod

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Island: The Complete Stories Analysis

Alistair MacLeod's collection of stories, Island, is a series of narratives that center upon the author's native Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and its residents. Much of the collection is an exploration of the ongoing struggle with nature and the physical and psychological isolation the people are subject to, which is unavoidable in such remote northern regions. But the various peoples of the island are emblematic of humanity, and their world is a microcosm in which the reader, regardless of background and location, will recognize his or her own struggles and emotions.

Much of MacLeod's technique involves the depiction of work and the way it has changed over time. The economy of Cape Breton well into the twentieth century was based on fishing and coal mining. In MacLeod's story "The Return," a young boy whose parents raised him in Montreal is brought to the island to visit his grandparents; his grandfather, a miner, shows the boy a completely different side of life than he has seen before, both in its strangeness in relation to what he knows of the world and in its dangers. Culture clash is a recurring theme in MacLeood's stories. So is youth versus age and the desire to be independent, as in "The Vastness of the Dark," about an 18-year-old leaving home and striking out on his own.

In each story, MacLeod depicts similar struggles and clashes among nature, people, and animals. "In the Fall" centers on a family having to sell an aging horse to a knacker (one who slaughters animals that have no use on the farm any longer); the horse, named Scott, is a beloved animal whose loss provokes a rebellion of sorts from the couple's young son. In "Clearances," an older man reviews his life and his connection to the inherent qualities of the island and to his Scottish ancestors who settled it generations earlier.

In each of these narratives, the nature of work, which has been determined by Cape Breton's topography; the residents' symbiosis with the land and the surrounding ocean; and the interrelations among people, land, water, the animals, and the fish in the sea create a vast panorama of life in a small, remote place, but one which illustrates the universality of MacLeod's themes. His achievement is to show that all of us are Cape Bretoners in one way or another. Every reader can see something to which she or he can relate in these stories.