Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624
Island: The Complete Stories can be viewed as a series of meditations on the nature of life in the North—in Alistair MacLeod's case, principally Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—and, as with all great writing, on life as it is everywhere. The themes involve isolation, people against nature, youth striving for independence, the changing nature of work over time, the modern versus the old and the resulting culture clash, and the meaning of ethnic heritage. Obviously, those are a great many themes, but not unexpectedly given that there are sixteen individual short stories in the collection. We can look closely at several of them now to see how MacLeod deals with those subjects.
One of the longer stories is itself called "Island" and concerns a woman named Agnes (misstated on her birth certificate as "Angus") living much of her life alone on an even smaller island off the coast of Cape Breton. Her family are lighthouse keepers, and after her father's death she takes over the job herself. Eventually, she's told by the government that her work will be eliminated through automation. When very young, she has a one-night encounter with a visiting fisherman, who tells her he'll marry her but first is going to work for a period of time on the mainland and in the U.S. Soon after this, she realizes she's pregnant and then learns that her lover has been killed. She gives birth to a daughter, who turns out to be chronically ill and is sent to be taken care of by Agnes's aunt on the mainland. Agnes's isolation increases after her parents die and she is left alone on the island. The daughter becomes almost totally estranged from her. Many years later, a young man arrives on the island, telling Agnes he's her grandson. Shortly before her death she has a dream vision of her lover himself, still youthful, saying that he has returned as he promised.
Most of the themes we've enumerated are dealt with in "Island": the isolation of people in the far north, the changing nature (and difficulty) of work, the bleakness and hostility of natural forces, the Scottish heritage of the islanders, and Agnes's culture clash with the daughter who grows up in mainland Canada.
This last theme is also explored in "The Return," in which a small boy brought up in Montreal whose father is originally from the island visits Cape Breton with his parents and sees a different world there. His grandfather's work in the coal mines, more than anything else, reveals that distance between old and new.
In the story "Clearances," an elderly Cape Breton man looks back on the changes that have taken place throughout his life. He recalls when he was in the army in World War II and was able to visit Scotland, the country of his ancestors, where he converses in Gaelic with a young man on a train. (Without having read MacLeod, it might come as a surprise to those from the U.S. and even to more than a few Canadians that people on Cape Breton continue to speak Gaelic as well as English.) Later, back in North America, the man sees a parallel between the "clearances" that were carried out in Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whereby many Highland people were evicted from their land and had to emigrate to the new world, and the changes taking place in present-day Nova Scotia, where land is being deforested to make way for new waves of immigrants.
The other stories in Island are similarly insightful works that elaborate these basic themes in many variations. Within a small geographic area we see a microcosm of the universal human condition expressed with profound realism and poignancy.