Nationality: Canadian. Born: North Battleford, Saskatchewan, 20 July 1936. Education: Nova Scotia Teacher's College, Truro, Teaching certificate 1956; St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, B.A., B.ED. 1960; University of New Brunswick, M.A. 1961; University of Notre Dame, Ph.D. 1968. Family: Married Anita MacLellan; six sons. Career: Professor of English, Nova Scotia Teacher's College, 1961-63; teacher, University of Indiana, Fort Wayne, 1966-69; teacher of English and writing, University of Windsor, and editor, The University of Windsor Review, since 1969. Canada's Exchange Writer to Scotland, 1984-84. Lives in Windsor, Ontario.
The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. 1976; revised edition, 1988.
As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories. 1986.
The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (produced 1982).
The Boat (produced 1983).*
"Signatures of Time: MacLeod and His Short Stories" by Colin Nicholson, in Canadian Literature 107, Winter 1985.* * *
When Alistair MacLeod's first collection of short stories, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, first appeared in 1976, it represented something of a landmark in Canadian literature. The stories chronicled the lives of people in the lonely, isolated Cape Breton part of Canada. In the very best sense, MacLeod is a regional writer, working out of intense affinity with the world from which he came. Parts of this world recur frequently in his stories—the elemental beauty of the surroundings, the cold, the poverty of mostly large families, the generations who work in the mines and the injuries and illnesses that inevitably ensue, and above all the heartache and conflict that arise as younger generations abandon the area for a life that is more comfortable and affluent.
The opening story in the collection, "In the Fall," is representative. A moving piece about an old horse due to fall to the knackers, the story contains many of the trademark elements in MacLeod's world: the dark presence of the Atlantic ocean, the poverty of the family, which necessitates selling the much loved horse, and the arduousness of the physical conditions. The narrator is just old enough to understand what his younger brother cannot, the sad choice facing his father. The situation is simple but powerful, and for the most part MacLeod presents it without unnecessary comment. We understand the grief driving David as he destroys the valuable fowls his mother has so carefully nurtured and come to see with the narrator the love between the parents as they engage in a brief, rare display of mutual affection. If there is a criticism of this and other stories of MacLeod's, including even the very powerful story "The Boat," it is that he is inclined to indulge in lavish rhetoric of a kind that echoes Faulkner and Lawrence.
Generational conflict and the bitterness of the maternal figures, especially at the departure of their children, is a constant theme. In "The Vastness of the Dark," James, the oldest of seven children, has just turned 18 and immediately leaves Cape Breton. Again, the world of mining is vividly evoked, with its danger and yet irresistible attraction. The details are compelling—the father's scarred hand, the horses blind from working in the darkness of the mines, the memories of spectacular disasters with men blown to bits, the fascination that James's grandfather has with coal and his grand-mother's hatred of it. To the vulgar salesman who picks up James, these mean nothing. Deserted towns where the mines have died mean to him only a better chance of picking up a woman because all the men have gone. Sitting outside in the car near Springhill, the boy comes to a new understanding. He recognizes how much of an outsider he is to the townspeople and that "going away" is a much more complex business than he had realized.
"The Return" is another wonderfully subtle, understated story about generational conflict. It opens with 10-year-old Alex and his parents traveling from Montreal to Cape Breton, where the father grew up. The father, Angus, views Cape Breton with a delight his wife, Mary, cannot share, and slowly the tensions become clear. Angus is going back to his own mining roots, which to Mary are offensive. He is a lawyer and works for Mary's father, whose background is one of affluence and propriety. A recurring note through the stories is the community's total rejection of change. As far as the people are concerned, their own life is the only one and anyone who leaves it or rejects it is a deserter. Angus's argument—"It is just that, well somehow we just can't live in a clan system anymore. We have to see beyond ourselves and our own families. We have to live in the twentieth century"—falls on totally deaf ears.
The story implicitly compares and evaluates the two ways of life, with its sympathies tending to go with the miners. There are subtle touches, such as the grandfather putting his dirty hands on the boy so that he will have to go through the ritual of washing himself with the miners. Or the touch of sympathy and understanding granted to Mary: " 'I am trying very hard. I really am,' says my mother. 'Yes, yes I know you are,' says my father gently and they move off down the hall." It is much like the gesture of reconciliation between husband and wife at the end of "In the Fall."
"The Boat" is one of the finest stories in the collection, and is again concerned with the clash between two lifestyles. The narrator opens with the memory of waiting to go out to sea with his father. The scenes and memories of early morning fishing in the harsh gray weather are vividly evoked. Equally vivid is the presentation of the father and his interest in books, which the mother holds in complete contempt: "… she had not read a book since high school. There she had read Ivanhoe and considered it a colossal waste of time." When the daughters move away, into more urban, comfortable lives removed from the sea, the mother becomes increasingly bitter and there is at the same time an increased pressure on the son to help out his aging father. He feels compelled to turn his back on education and books, but the father understands and persuades him to return to school: "As I left, my mother followed me to the porch and said, 'I never thought a son of mine would choose useless books over the parents that gave him life."' The story is filled with ironies. The boy in school watches the fishing boats go out as he sits, "discussing the water imagery of Tennyson." Two ways of life—one dying, one successful—are opposed and irreconcilable. When the son returns during his holidays to help his father for the trawling season, his mother is quite happy and he resigns himself to returning to a life of fishing as long as his father lives. Then one night, the father disappears during a storm. "I turned and he was not there and I knew even in that instant that he would never be again." The boy leaves the sea after that, knowing that his mother will always regard it as a betrayal.
MacLeod's later fiction is more relaxed and expansive and filled with digressions, but it deals with essentially the same preoccupations in the same setting. The theme of "Winter Dog," for instance, is a variation on that of "In the Fall," the necessary execution of a beloved animal, while "The Closing Down of Summer" is almost a meditation or reflective essay on the life of the miners. All the usual themes are there: the danger the miners work under and the fearsome physical effects it has on them; their professionalism and deep sense of camaraderie; the effects upon their family of long isolation; and the generational changes as sons and daughters find new, safer, and more lucrative employment. All these are dealt with at length and without bitterness, just a wry kind of irony. There is an almost comically perceptive portrait of the narrator's wife as she "does her declining wash among an increasingly bewildering battery of appliances." The narrator notes, "I am always mildly amazed to find the earnings of the violence and dirt in which I make my living converted into such meticulous brightness." A mood of elegiac solemnity hangs over the story, and is summed up in the ballad the narrator cites at the end.
At his best, which is most of the time, MacLeod is a subtle writer who allows his meanings to be inferred by the slow unfolding of detail and suggestion. "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood," for instance, opens on a detailed, lyrical description of a bay which emphasizes its isolation and distance. The rocks stretch out towards Europe, the stranger who suddenly appears in the frame has come 2, 500 miles from the American Midwest. Dublin and the Irish coast are nearer than Toronto or Detroit. A mysterious atmosphere is created as the man thinks about returning home and not intruding, although we're left to wonder what he would be intruding on. He joins some boys fishing, and then suddenly an old man appears with a dog. MacLeod is carefully reticent, but eventually we learn that the stranger is the boy's father and he has been brought up by his grandparents. The story works by carefully implied details and suggestions—the effect of the fog, for instance, or the ending when two children race up at the airport to their father with their arms outstretched: "'Daddy, Daddy,' they cry, 'what did you bring me? What did you bring me?"' and we have to infer the pain of the narrator.