Essential reading – Alistair MacLeod

Of late, I’ve been reading the works of Alistair MacLeod. It is not a vast oeuvre. It consists of two collections of short stories and a novel. The short story collections have helpfully been brought together into a single volume, Island. The novel, No Great Mischief, won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. But it is in the short stories published between 1968 and 1999 that MacLeod’s reputation is rooted. And it is there that I would encourage anyone interested in this essential writer to begin their journey.

The reason I started reading MacLeod recently is that my wife and I are in the midst of planning a trip to Nova Scotia. I’ve never been. Admittedly it is a long way from southern Ontario.  It is also a long way from the UK, where we spent a sizeable portion of our lives. So my knowledge of the land and life and people of Nova Scotia is sketchy at best. And while guide books and maps are of great use in planning the details of travel, they don’t often offer up that spark that lights your imagination and breathes life and meaning into your future experiences. Walk down almost any street in Oxford, or London, or Paris and you will have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of associations readily crowding your palette. At times it can be overwhelming, especially if you only have time for a short visit. But without at least some of that, it’s hard to know what experiences you would have at all. They might be no more meaningful than the digital images recorded on your phone and later deleted to make space for that new app you’ve just got to have. For me, the best way to pre-seed my experience of somewhere new is to delve into its literature. Fortunately, my wife is, as usual, a bit ahead of me in these matters. So, after some initial research and settling upon Alistair MacLeod as one of the essential writers I would need to read in order to gain an insight into life on Cape Breton Island, I was able to simply turn to our bookshelves and discover that we already owned copies of MacLeod’s collected short stories and his novel. I was ready to begin.

I suggest that if you are starting out on such a journey you should begin at the beginning with the short stories. I didn’t do that but I wish I had. One of the benefits of Island is that the short stories are presented in the order in which they were originally published, with the dates of publication indicated. Read that first story, “The Boat”, which was published in 1968 when Alistair MacLeod was 32. Incredible. Everything (or almost everything) is there. The rocky shore, identity through labour, generations, fathers and sons (and grandfathers), the sense in which the Scottish Highlands of the 18th century are barely a breath away from the real lives of these men and women on Canada’s eastern shore in the 20th century. The Gaelic. The lived, almost genetic, history of a people. The way the narrator stands at one remove from his tale, which in all other respects is straightforward, linear, and song-like. And also the constituent tragedy — tragedy as environment, as something that must be lived through and dealt with but which has no external cause. Not tragedy as punishment, just tragedy as a normal part of life. Perhaps it is little wonder that with such a rich seam, MacLeod is able to spend the rest of his writing life mining it.

Whether the story involves fishermen or miners or loggers or farmers or lighthouse keepers, there is an intimate relationship between a man’s work and who he is in MacLeod’s writing. Is there also an ambivalence there about whether the writing life shares this density? Certainly some of these stories feel like they were hewn out of rock, as though MacLeod has done all of the heavy lifting and left us only the pure metal. For the most part, however, writing as labour remains obscured here with the focus firmly fixed on the people whose stories are being told rather than the teller. It isn’t until the stories in the 1980s that MacLeod’s narrative approach begins to become more complex. However this increasing complexity does not move him away from his principal subjects. The same can be said of his novel, No Great Mischief, which shares this narrative sophistication. A related observation might be that the earliest stories have a narrative directness to them, almost like an oral tale. And it is this directness that pushes to the surface even in his more complex stories. Linear narrative set within a complex narrative form has a tendency to read as fate, the inevitability of action and person that brings symbolic meaning to resolution. Thus the writing becomes increasingly archetypal, even a bit heavy, especially in the novel.

It is hard to say whether there is something insular about MacLeod’s writing. At times it feels like writing from an earlier generation. With the prevalence of the physical environment and the close ties between man and beast, especially dogs, you might think it is quintessentially Canadian, with perhaps a hint of Jack London. But this is also a writer who was fully embedded in the professional life of writing in the latter third of the 20th century, both as an English professor and a teacher of creative writing. Yet it is as though other writers of his time, especially progressive writers, had no influence on him at all. Or perhaps that is what ought to be expected if his aesthetic choices were fixed well before he began publishing stories. In any case, his resolute focus upon a specific locale and relatively small range of themes (if birth, death, and marriage count as a small range) comes across as a conscious choice. One which needs to be considered, though I’ll leave that for others to consider more fully.

I’m glad I read these works of Alistair MacLeod. I feel as though I have gained a small sense of the possible lives of those of Scottish descent on Cape Breton. I recommend them heartily.

Of course, the Scots are relative latecomers to life in Nova Scotia, though you might not pick that up from MacLeod’s writing. So naturally I’ve been reading some of the Acadian writers as well. But that, as they say, is a very different story.

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  1. And again I ask, why was all the Canned Lit I read in high school set on the prairies during the Depression? |Obviously there are some good writers in other parts of the country.

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