KfC’s 2013 Project: Island: The Collected Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

Personal collection

Personal collection

When it came time to select the books for this project more than a year ago, one decision was easy. While my reading of short stories is more guiltily conscientious (“I really should”) than avid (“I can’t wait for the next collection”), two story writers demanded inclusion: Alice Munro (I’ll get to her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, next month to conclude the project) and Alistair MacLeod. I am not alone in facing that decision, incidentally — when Carmen Calill and Colm Toibin in 2000 picked the 200 best English-language “novels” since 1950 for the Modern Library, they stretched the rules to include collections from both Munro and MacLeod.

So when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few months back, I was delighted to see my judgment reflected by a far more credible source. And a part of me was just a bit disappointed that a short story writer who, for my taste, is every bit as outstanding was left on the sidelines yet again.

Munro and MacLeod do have much in common. They were born only five years apart (Munro in 1931, MacLeod 1936) and neither published a collection until they were approaching age 40. Both are acutely aware of their Scots heritage — Munro devoted a memoir-like volume (The View From Castle Rock) to her ancestral story, MacLeod’s ancestors (like those of many of his characters) came to this country in the 1790s.

So why is Munro known and loved by readers around the world while MacLeod’s global reputation seems restricted to academic and publishing professionals, rather than readers? I’d suggest it is due to two factors:

  • MacLeod simply does not publish very much: two seven-story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth The Sun (1986) (collected with two additional stories, “Island” and “Clearances”, in this volume published in 2000) and one novel, No Great Mischief (1999). Indeed, you can purchase his entire fiction catalogue at Indigo online for $31.76 and read his complete oeuvre in a weekend (although I certainly would not advise that).
  • Like the “Munro country” of southwestern Ontario, MacLeod has his space: Cape Breton Island. Anyone who has ever visited Cape Breton knows how spectacularly beautiful it is but you only have to be there for a few days to appreciate how difficult it would be to live and survive on the island — there is a reason why the Scots ended up here. The resources that kept Cape Bretoners afloat (fishing, lumber and coal-mining) have all been in decline for more than half a century and the painful results of that are a constant in MacLeod’s stories. His characters are every bit as human and humane as Munro’s are — the environment they live in is much bleaker and far more punishing. The joy that often shows up in a Munro story to offset the sadness simply is not present in MacLeod’s excellent work.
  • The 16 stories in Island are presented in the order in which they were written and, for this reader at least, the result reads like two novels, each with an overriding theme, followed by a coda in the final two stories.

    All change, be it of choice or of necessity, involves loss — even if the end result is overwhelmingly positive, what the individual first experiences is that loss. It is that sense of what is about to be or has been lost that permeates the seven stories first published in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.

    While there is nuance and subtlety in how that is presented in most of the stories, I’ll focus on one, “The Vastness of the Dark”, where it is presented directly. James, the narrator, comes from a mining family — both his grandfather and father were Cape Breton miners but even in his father’s era the coal mines were running out and miners needed to head to Quebec, Ontario, the West or the U.S. to practise their trade, speeding home to family in crowded cars with fellow miners whenever they could for a few days or weeks.

    James knows that won’t work for him and the story opens as he awakes on his eighteenth birthday on June 28, 1960, the day he has set for his departure. After a few pages of backstory sketching James’ family and, most particularly, his discovery of his own pre-marriage conception (which closed off his father’s chance to escape Cape Breton), MacLeod quickly brings James’ challenge to a head:

    But after today, I will probably not think about it any more. For today I leave behind this grimy Cape Breton coal-mining town whose prisoner I have been all my life. And I have decided that almost any place must be better than this one with its worn-out mines and smoke-black houses; and the feeling has been building within me for the last few years. It seems to have come almost with the first waves of sexual desire and with it to have grown stronger and stronger with the passing months and years. For I must not become as my father whom I now hear banging the stove-lids below me as if there were some desperate rush about it all and some place that he must be in a very short time. Only to go nowhere. And I must not be as my grandfather who is now an almost senile old man, nearing ninety, who sits by the window all day saying his prayers and who in his moments of clarity remembers mostly his conquests over coal, and recounts tales of how straight were the timbers he and my father erected in the now caved-in underground drifts of twenty-five years ago when he was sixty-two and my father twenty-five and I not yet conceived.

    That seems powerful enough reason to get out, but the sense of what he is about to lose is quickly hammered home. He has risen early, he tells his mother in the kitchen, so he can depart before his younger brothers and sisters are up:

    “It will be easier that way.”

    My mother moves the kettle toward the back of the stove, as if stalling for time, then she turns and says, “Where will you go? To Blind River?”

    Her response is so little like that which I had anticipated that I feel strangely numb. For I had somehow expected her to be greatly surprised, astounded, astonished, and she is none of these. And her mention of Blind River, the centre of Northern Ontario’s uranium mines, is something and someplace that I had never even thought of. It is as if my mother had not only known that I was to leave but had even planned my route and final destination. I am reminded of my reading in school of the way Charles Dickens felt about the blacking factory and his mother’s being so fully in favour of it. In favour of a life for him which he considered so terrible and so far beneath his imagined destiny.

    His father’s response is equally unsettling:

    My father turns from the window and says, “You are only eighteen today, perhaps you could wait awhile. Something might turn up.” But within his eyes I see no strong commitment to his words and I know he feels that waiting is at best weary and at worst hopeless. This also makes me somehow rather disappointed and angry as I had thought somehow my parents would cling to me in a kind of desperate fashion and I would have to be very firm and strong.

    “What is there to wait for?” I say, asking a question that is useless and to which I know the all-too-obvious answer. “Why do you want me to stay here?”

    “You misunderstand,” says my father, “you are free to go if you want to. We are not forcing you or asking you to do anything. I am only saying that you do not have to go now.”

    James also stops at his grandparents on his way out of town. His grandmother gives him two letters sent more than two decades earlier to his father (then working at the mines in Kellogg, Idaho). One is from his grandfather, urging his father to come back to Cape Breton (“The seam is good for years yet. No one has been killed for some time now. It is getting better.”) The other, written the same day, is from his grandmother (“If you return here now you will never get out and this is no place to lead one’s life. They say the seam will be finished in another few years. Love, Mother”)

    James’ grandfather shows him to the door and supplies the exclamation point to the painful goodbyes that are reminders of what is being lost:

    “Don’t forget to come back, James,” he says, “it’s the only way you’ll be content. Once you drink underground water it becomes a part of you like the blood a man puts into a woman. It changes her forever and never goes away. There’s always a part of him running there deep inside her. It’s what will wake you up at night and never ever leave you alone.”

    James does escape and we follow his route for some pages before MacLeod returns to his overarching theme at the end of the story (I should note that, again like Munro, MacLeod is great at closing lines). He’s been picked up by a carload of miners outside Springhill, Nova Scotia (a mainland coal-mining town) on their way to (surprise) Blind River:

    “I guess your people have been on the coal over there for a long time?” asks the voice beside me.

    “Yes,” I say, “since 1873.”

    “Son of a bitch,” he says, after a pause, “it seems to bust your balls and it’s bound to break your heart.”

    That theme of hopelessness and loss is also present in the seven stories from As Birds Bring Forth The Sun, but MacLeod adds another constant thread. He looks at the impact of time and the changes that it brings, particularly as one Cape Breton season moves to the next — the titles of three successive stories (“To Everything There Is A Season”, “Second Spring” and “Winter Dog”) are indication enough of one thread that he introduces.

    And finally, there are the two coda stories where MacLeod underlines that his Cape Bretoners are not merely the product of generations but of centuries. Virtually all of MacLeod’s stories feature family characters from three adult generations — “Island” and “Clearances” emphasize that this thread extends back to the original departure from Scotland. In “Clearances”, a Cape Bretoner who is serving in the Canadian forces in World War II heads to northern Scotland on furlough and runs into a shepherd. “You are from Canada? You are from the Clearances?” the shepherd asks — the Clearances being the eviction of Scots from the land in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. “Yes, I guess so” is the response.

    This review is already far too long and I fear that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to convey how good MacLeod’s writing is. Even on first read, but particularly on second and third, you come to understand why he only produced one short story a year — every word and phrase is perfectly chosen, every character is fully developed, all in 25 or 30 pages. While I normally urge people to read only one or two stories a day from a collection, with MacLeod I would say the best approach is to plan on reading one a week — that allows for the multiple readings that the author both deserves and rewards.

    I’ll leave the last word to Douglas Gibson, the legendary Canadian publisher who edited No Great Mischief and this compilation. In the chapter on MacLeod in his memoir, Stories About Storytellers, (hilarious in its own right on what it took for Gibson to finally pry the manuscript of the novel from MacLeod’s hands — variations of the story are like urban legends in Canadian publishing), Gibson includes the following:

    Since Alistair is busy giving speeches and accepting prizes around the world, he is not doing much writing, dammit — or, to be precise, he is not admitting to me, when I ask, that he is doing much writing.

    Given that it has now been almost 15 years since we last saw a new work, I take that sentence as a hopeful sign — maybe, just maybe, we may yet see another collection from this truly exceptional writer. In the meantime, if you have not yet read him, spend the $31.76 and discover how good one of the best writers I know really is — you will not be disappointed.

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    6 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: Island: The Collected Stories, by Alistair MacLeod”

    1. Anokatony Says:

      I read ‘No Great Mischief’ and thought it was wonderful. I must try a collection of his short stories. I hadn’t associated him with Alice Munro, but there do appear to be parallels.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Spring for Island (Amazon indicates there is a U.S. version). Even if you decide to read it as two different volumes (which is not a bad idea) spread over a couple of years, it is good value. Personally, I prefer the stories — even though I rate the novel very highly.

    2. Judy Gardner Says:

      Thank you for your understanding review of this profound writer. I have held your thoughts of him for a long time. Let’s hope there might be more. I enjoy reading your thoughtful reviews.

    3. Alanna Says:

      MacLeod is one of my favourite writers, so I read your review with my interest, and I share your opinions. Although I do not regularly read short stories, his surely are some of the best in the language, and I love them. Being from Nova Scotia, I especially appreciate the strong sense of place his stories evoke. Also, I particularly enjoyed your comparison with Munro, which was not something I had thought about before. Thank you!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I am sure that for Nova Scotians (past or present) MacLeod’s stories have an extra layer of appeal in the way that he captures the setting. I did not try to address it in my review, but his powers of description are every bit as good as the way that he develops his characters.

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