MacLeod, Alistair 1936–
MacLeod, Alistair 1936–
PERSONAL: Born July 20, 1936, in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada; son of Alexander Duncan and Christene (a teacher; maiden name, MacLellan) MacLeod; married Anita MacLellan (a homemaker), September 4, 1971; children: Alexander, Lewis, Kenneth, Marion, Daniel, Andrew. Education: Nova Scotia Teachers College, teaching certificate, 1956; St. Francis Xavier University, B.A., B.Ed., 1960; University of New Brunswick, M.A., 1961; University of Notre Dame, Ph.D., 1968. Religion: Roman Catholic.
ADDRESSES: Home—231 Curry Ave., Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9B 2B4. Office—Department of English, 2100 Chrysler Hall North, University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9B 3P4.
CAREER: Worked variously as miner, logger, and farmhand. Schoolteacher on Port Hood Island, 1956–57; Nova Scotia Teachers College, Truro, lecturer in English, 1961–63; University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN, lecturer in English, 1964–66; associated with English faculty, Indiana University (now Indiana University-Purdue University) at Fort Wayne, 1966–69; University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada, professor of English, 1969–; associated with faculty, Banff School of Fine Arts, summer program, 1981–86.
MEMBER: Writers Union of Canada, Writers Federation of Nova Scotia.
AWARDS, HONORS: Selected as the Canadian participant in a Canada-Scotland writers-in-residence exchange program, 1984–85; Trillium Prize, Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and Dartmouth Book and Writing Award for Fiction, all 2000, all for No Great Mischief; International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2001, for No Great Mischief.
The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (short stories; includes "The Boat"), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1976, published as The Lost Salt Gift of Blood: New and Selected Stories, Ontario Review Press (New York, NY), 1988.
As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1986.
Island: The Collected Short Stories of Alistair MacLeod, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 2000.
Work represented in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1969, 1975; Best Canadian Short Stories; Best Modern Canadian Short Stories, Hurtig, 1978.
The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, Mulgrave Road Co-Op Theatre Company, tour of twenty Maritime communities, 1982.
The Boat (based on short story), Mulgrave Road Co-Op Theatre Company, tour of Maritimes, spring, 1983, Canadian National Tour, summer-fall, 1983, and tour of England and Scotland, spring, 1984.
No Great Mischief (novel), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1999.
Author of A Textual Study of Thomas Hardy's "A Group of Noble Dames," 1968. Contributor to periodicals, including Tamarack Review, Antigonish Review, Canadian Forum, Dalhousie Review, Quarry, Fiddlehead, and Amethyst. Fiction editor of University of Windsor Review, 1973–.
SIDELIGHTS: Short story writer and educator Alistair MacLeod is one of the "most important chronicler[s] in fiction of the landscape and folkways of Cape Breton to appear on the Canadian literary scene in recent years," declared James Doyle in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Known for his concise style and "historic present" narration, MacLeod has published work in periodicals, including several pieces of poetry, and collected many of his stories into two books. As Doyle explained, "Although his creative output is small … [MacLeod] has earned the respect of critics and editors in both Canada and the United States, especially for his mastery of the short-story form." When in 1999 MacLeod published his first novel, No Great Mischief, this too was met with critical acclaim.
Born in Saskatchewan in 1936 to natives of Cape Breton Island, MacLeod moved with his family back to Nova Scotia while he was still quite young. He grew up in the small, close-knit Maritime communities which later became central to his writing. MacLeod's work recreates "the scenery and human drama of his native region," described Doyle. "Virtually all his stories are devoted to the exposition and dramatization of the folkways, socioeconomic realities, and relationships of family and community in Cape Breton." In many of his tales, MacLeod uses a form of narration in which the past is described and remembered in terms of the present. His "repeated use of [this technique] indicates that he values its aura of the old-fashioned, its suggestion of stories being swapped around a hot stove. And even the stories which don't use the technique share a tone of thoughtful nostalgia," noted Laurence Ricou in Canadian Literature.
MacLeod's first collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, contains seven stories. "Initiation into adulthood, separation from family, return to the place of origin from an adult life faraway, become occasions and themes for the narrators' reflections," wrote Richard Lemm in Atlantic Provinces Book Review. Titles such as "The Return" and "The Road to Rankin's Point" deal with a homecoming; "In the Fall" with a family facing emotional and economic stress; while mining life is the focus of "The Vastness of the Dark." "The Boat," which was adapted for stage, concerns a father and son relationship. The narrator, a college professor, remembers his childhood, especially his deceased father, who spent his life as a fisherman. For MacLeod's characters, "a literary education is very much a two-edged sword, serving to alienate characters from their origins even as it releases them from the more gruelling demands of necessary labor," commented Canadian Literature contributor Colin Nicholson.
"MacLeod's writing strikes home with immediacy, intensity and poetic beauty," declared Lemm. "MacLeod's stories grow from their roots in a particular place and people to a universality of human experience and insight." Nicholson also praises the "immediacy and intensity" of Macleod's tales in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, noting: "It is in the sculpting of the emotional infrastructure of any given situation that MacLeod's talent shines." Jon Kertzer, writing in Canadian Forum, judged that "The great merit of these stories [in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood] is their power and authenticity of detail…. The weakness of the book is a tendency to excess." Kertzer felt that "one tale ceases to dramatize and lapses into moralizing; another indulges in a poolroom melodrama; another allows its tone to become remorselessly elegiac." However, he concluded: "But at his best, MacLeod weds his characters to their locales so that each is enriched by the other."
MacLeod published a second collection, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, ten years after The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. The stories in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories "recall and at the same time transcend the heart of this earlier collection," representing "a mature and complex acceptance of the problematic and ultimately tragic nature of experience," commented Janice Kulyk Keefer in Antigonish Review. The stories are played against the backdrop of Atlantic Canada, and include "The Tuning of Perfection," in which a seventy-eight-year-old man watches traditions die or get twisted beyond recognition. Tales of fishermen and miners are also a part of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, as in "Vision," which presents a slice of life in a fishing town, and "The Closing Down of Summer," where the mining group leader justifies his choice of mining over a college education. In "Winter Dog" a man remembers, while waiting for news of a dying relative, the childhood pet that once saved his life. Thomas P. Sullivan praised "Winter Dog" in Quill & Quire, writing: "This is memory as private myth (another of MacLeod's recurring themes). The effect is hypnotic; the imagery is burned into the brain and lingers."
"Death, sexual love, and the power of the past: these are the themes that run through all the stories and unify" As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, noted David Helwig in Queen's Quarterly, judging that the collection has "a powerful poetic unity." "While very much aware of the hardness of life for the people he writes about, MacLeod's wise heart perceives their secret longings, admires their patient strengths, and records with great authority the small triumphs in their struggle for dignity, pride, and love," commented Jack Hodgins in Books in Canada. American Book Review contributor Russell Brown declared that "MacLeod is one of the best literary craftsmen in Canada, capable of conveying intense emotions in a prose that never strains for effect." All of MacLeod's previous stories, plus a few new ones, were collected in Island: The Collected Short Stories of Alistair MacLeod, published in 2000.
MacLeod's long-awaited first novel was published in 1999. No Great Mischief consists of the reflections of Alexander MacDonald, a successful orthodontist who hasn't quite lost touch with his Scottish roots in Cape Breton. The story actually begins in 1779, when a brave highlander named Calum MacDonald leaves Scotland with his family. His wife dies during the course of the Atlantic crossing, leaving Calum with a large family to care for. Rough weather and hard work are the lot of the MacDonalds for generations, but Alexander has left all that behind for a soft, prosperous life. Yet he feels the emptiness of his profession, in which he charges exorbitant fees to make wealthy people smile more perfectly. While not romanticizing more primitive days and their hardships, MacLeod's book denounces the wholesale abandonment of the past. Oliver Thomson in Economist wrote, "For Mr. MacLeod, assimilation that destroys the past is a terrible wrong: a denial of the language, family, and culture." Thomson recommended MacLeod as a "gifted" writer "with something provocative to say—and he says it well. He spent several years writing No Great Mischief, and none of that time was wasted. His storytelling is taut and lucid. His characters possess strength and depth. They linger in your mind." A.J. Anderson, writing in Library Journal, commented on the author's "remarkable ability to create and handle an intricate plot that goes back and forth between past and present." Much of the tale unfolds as Alexander and his older, alcoholic brother journey to Cape Breton; a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented, "What emanates is a loving retrieval of a people's native strategy of survival through history and across a changing landscape…. The overall effect is authenticity, and the lack of irony is as bracing as the cold spray of the North Atlantic."
"MacLeod—ex-miner, ex-logger, ex-farmboy, professor of English and creative writing—blends a country man's clear-eyed and unselfconscious awareness with a sometimes stunning ability to write, to succeed in virtually everything he tries," judged Sullivan. Doyle wrote in his conclusion: "The folkloric elements, as well as discursive narrative and interior rumination, are the vital means of exploring and preserving an image of life that relatively few people may have experienced in its specific detail but that is universal in its implications…. MacLeod is a subtle, economical, forceful writer, whose small but important output must not be overlooked."
Commenting on his deliberate working style in an interview with Theodore Sleuth for Dolomite, MacLeod said, "I hardly ever do drafts. I do one sentence and I get ready and I do another sentence. I think this individual sentence is as good as it's going to be and then I start my next individual sentence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 56, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.
American Book Review, May-June, 1988, Russell Brown, review of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, pp. 10, 21.
Antigonish Review, summer-autumn, 1986, Janice Kulyk Keefer, review of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, pp. 113-116.
Atlantic Provinces Book Review, December, 1982, Richard Lemm, review of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 9.
Books in Canada, August-September, 1986, Jack Hod-gins, review of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, pp. 12-13.
Canadian Forum, June-July, 1976, Jon Kertzer, review of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, p. 51.
Canadian Literature, spring, 1978, pp. 116-118; winter, 1985, pp. 90-101.
Economist, June 17, 2000, Oliver Thomson, review of No Great Mischief, p. 12.
Library Journal, June 1, 2000, A.J. Anderson, review of No Great Mischief, p. 198.
Maclean's, November 8, 1999, John Demont, review of No Great Mischief, p. 88; July 17, 2000, John Be-mrose, review of Island: The Collected Stories, p. 48.
Publishers Weekly, April 3, 2000, review of No Great Mischief, p. 62.
Queen's Quarterly, winter, 1987, David Helwig, review of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, pp. 1022-1024.
Quill & Quire, May, 1986, Thomas P. Sullivan, review of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, p. 25.
Time International, May 8, 2000, Katherine Govier, "Fathers and Sons: Alistair MacLeod Plumbs the Generational Chasm That Includes Social Class and Geography," p. 57.
January Magazine, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (September 21, 2000), Sienna Powers, review of No Great Mischief.