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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

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In questions such as these, it's good to look at quotes that express or encapsulate the most basic themes of a literary work. Island: The Complete Stories has a recurring motif of the changing nature of work and of the old and new as they are juxtaposed in the author's native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A corollary of these ideas is the connection one maintains with their ancestral culture—in Alistair MacLeod's case, his Scottish Highland ancestors and their Gaelic language.

In the closing story of the collection, "Clearances," the narrator is an elderly man reviewing his life and observing the changes he sees happening in Cape Breton. He then repeats to his dog a phrase he had heard spoken in Gaelic decades earlier by a man on a train, whom the narrator had encountered when he was a World War II serviceman stationed in Scotland:

S'e thu fhein a tha tapaidh. (It is yourself that's smart.)

It's a kind of admission that we humans can do only so much to control our world.

In the story "The Closing Down of Summer," an aging miner makes the following observation:

Our sons will go to the universities to study dentistry or law and to become fatly affluent before they are thirty. . . . They will be far removed from the physical life and will seek it out only through jogging or golf or games of handball with friendly colleagues.

The bygone nature of various kinds of work is also shown in these lines from the story "Island":

The Government built a splendid new wharf and the spring fishermen no longer came to inhabit the shanties, which began to fall into disrepair, their doors banging in the wind and the shingles flying from their roofs.

In "The Return," the nature of life on Cape Breton is contrasted with the more modern urban existence of Montreal as a little boy compares his two grandfathers. His Cape Breton grandfather, like all the miners, chews tobacco instead of smoking:

But when they're down there they could smoke cigarettes like Grandpa Gilbert in a silver cigarette holder, and Mama says that chewing tobacco is a filthy habit.

MacLeod examines contrasts regarding not only work and the results of changing times but also those of social background and status. In "The Golden Gift of Grey," a boy whose parents are originally from Appalachia observes their uncomfortable behavior on parents' night at school:

Once inside the great building . . . what natural dignity they possessed had seemed to drain from them immediately, as if some magic stoppers had been pulled from beneath their shoes.

Another theme of MacLeod's fiction is the ongoing struggle against the harsh forces of nature. The way animals as well as people respond to it is significant. One of the most poignant stories is "Winter Dog," the title character of which is a collie/German shepherd whose presence never works out quite well enough for the farm family because he's too aggressive in the herding process, frightening and sometimes biting the cattle. But he saves the life of the narrator when the latter falls through the ice and nearly drowns:

Finally I grasped the breast strap of his harness. He began to back up then, and as I said, he was tremendously strong.

As man and dog struggle home over the ice, we are told:

The dog faced into the wind and I followed him. This time he stayed in sight, and at times even turned back to wait for me.

These passages are reminiscent of Jack London's stories. Like London, MacLeod shows the bonding of humans and animals as both continue the ongoing battle of life.

Many other striking quotations can be found in Island, relating to this and other themes as I've described them above.