Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

The words of the narrator in “The Closing Down of Summer”:

“[I]n the introduction to the literature text that my eldest daughter brings home from university it states that ‘the private experience, if articulated with skill, may communicate an appeal that is universal beyond the limitations of time or landscape.’ I have read that over several times and thought about its meaning in relation to myself. . . . I would like somehow to show and tell the nature of my work and perhaps some of my entombed feelings to those that I would love, if they would care to listen.”

And what follows is the narrator’s explanation of leaving university and the reading of literature to embrace the life of a deep shaft miner, traveling the world, abandoning his family at the end of each summer in a caravan of big cars full of large, strong, brave men, and going to places like Haiti, Chile, the Congo. Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica. Drinking moonshine as they drive non-stop, hard through the night.

MacLeod is brilliant in showing and telling the nature of their dangerous work and the fullness of their hearts in their isolation from the rest of the world. We can feel their physicality and courage. We can know them.

Like the narrator in “The Closing Down of Summer,” MacLeod wants us to understand and care and know about his corner of the world, his people, his roots. So he writes about the people who came to Cape Breton as part of The Clearances (the forced migration of people from the Highlands and western islands of Scotland in the mid-to-late 18th Century). Most of his stories are set on Cape Breton, where the old Gaelic language, music, and myths are still part of life.

MacLeod uses his amazing skills as a describer to make us feel how beautiful and compelling, but inhospitable and dangerous, Cape Breton is. How proud people are to be miners, fishermen, and farmers. How arduous such work is on the body and spirit. What pride the people take in their work.

There are sixteen stories in Island, the first published when MacLeod was thirty-one, the last when he was sixty-three. And the tenor of the stories, as they progress from 1968 to 1999 generally embrace the aging of the human spirit and psyche.

Characters in the earlier stories are more innocent and aspirational (boys like Jesse in “The Golden Gift of Grey” who drifts into the pool hall, and like James in “The Vastness of the Dark” who believes leaving home will be simple).  With the middle stories like “The Closing Down of Summer,” narrators are in their prime, but mindful of the cycle of life. And with the last stories like “Vision,” “Island,” and “Clearances,” there’s disillusion, madness, German tourists, and pit bulls.

Stories are populated by children, young people, men, women, old people–and, of almost equal importance, by cattle, horses, sheep, dogs, and chickens.  The breeding of people and the breeding of animals is serious business in this world.

Most of the stories have a male narrator – thus the collection overall has a masculine perspective. In many ways, the stories are a study of masculinity. But we see women. And they are strong. The fierce mother in “The Boat” and the woman with the coral combs in “In the Fall.” The resolute grandmother in “The Road to Rankin’s Point.” The brave, lonely, ultimately mad woman in “Island.”

The skill of MacLeod’s writing makes Cape Breton and its people real. We know them. And by knowing them, we know ourselves. We know that life is ultimately a story of loss, but that loss can be faced with kinship, love, and courage.

My favorite anecdote about MacLeod is that when a writing student asked him how long a good story should be, MacLeod answered, “Just make your story as long as a piece of string, and it will work out just fine.”

And it does.

—Sharelle Moranville

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