Alistair MacLeod’s short stories present masterful writing

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By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News

Tributes to Alistair MacLeod have poured in over the last two weeks since his death, many of them citing quotations from his prize-winning and only novel, “No Great Mischief,” but his short stories equally mirror his artistry and leave us with quotations to carry on.

Published in 1999, after many years of exquisitely careful crafting, “No Great Mischief” is the story of a Cape Breton family with a deep sense of home that is rooted in an immigrant history. Told by Alexander MacDonald in the 1980s, the novel spans generations and fans out across the country but in their hearts the descendants of red-haired, dark-eyed Calum MacDonald are Cape Bretoners, from first breath to finish.

Most quoted has been the eloquently simple last line of the novel, “All of us are better when we’re loved.” No sophisticated words, just an enduring sentiment.

The strength of the novel came as no surprise to those familiar with MacLeod’s two slim books of short stories, “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” and “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun.” Both books, as well as two additional stories, ‘Clearances’ and ‘Island,’ were published in a single volume entitled Island after No Great Mischief won the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. If there are a few books we are required by our geography to read, these are among them.

Perhaps the most famous of the short stories is ‘The Boat,’ MacLeod’s first. Written in 1968, it is the story of a young professor who has turned his back on his family’s fishing tradition, honouring his dead father while shaming his mother. Beautiful, sensitive and searing, it captures MacLeod’s gift portraying the complexity of seemingly simple characters of great dignity. For anyone who has never read MacLeod’s work, ‘The Boat’ is the place to start. Once started, no further encouragement will be required as it will just be a case of deciding which piece to read next.

MacLeod wrote 16 stories, 12 of them are my favourite.

One of these favourites, ‘To Everything There is a Season,’ first published in 1977, became available in a tiny hard cover book with illustrations by fellow Cape Bretoner, Peter Rankin. The publisher aptly branded it as the perfect Christmas gift. It is the rich and sentimental story of a Cape Breton family struggling through hard times as Christmas approaches. It is told many years later by a son. As it begins, the narrator acknowledges the difficulty of telling a boy’s story once he has become a man.

“I am not sure how many liberties I may be taking with the boy I think I was. For Christmas is a time of both past and present and often the two are imperfectly blended. As we step into its nowness we often look behind,” MacLeod wrote.

The boy’s father is dying, though the young son is not fully aware, and the family is waiting for an older son, working on a freighter on the St. Lawrence Seaway, to arrive home, bringing with him, they hope, the joy of the season. The boy is ambivalent when invited to remain up with the older members of the family on Christmas Eve, knowing he is now passing over a threshold that can never be revisited. Years later, he remembers his father’s Christmas Eve words, words that now become a lasting measure of the man who wrote them.

“Every man moves on,” my father said quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.” 

Geographic location: Cape Breton, St. Lawrence Seaway

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