‘Better when we’re loved’

Alistair MacLeod captures raw needs in a distant place.

Men are at sea or in mines. Women spend seasons alone.

Alistair MacLeod’s compact body of work presents a powerful case against literary overproduction: there’s his sparkling novel, No Great Mischief, published in 1999, and now a near-perfect collection of 16 stories written between 1966 and 1999.

In both books, MacLeod renders knowing and affectionate portraits of the hard-working, tight-knit, Scottish immigrant clans based in northeastern Canada’s Cape Breton. And above all, MacLeod, who now lives part of each year nearby and teaches at the University of Windsor, lets us experience the raw, practical need for love in these geographically isolated communities.

Life on Cape Breton is decidedly unmodern: Men risk their lives and health daily working on fishing boats or in coal mines, and often leave their families for months at a time. Women spend seasons alone, responsible for taking care of children and farms. Community ties balance out physical hardship and emotional isolation. Families and neighbors rely on one another, as well as on land, livelihoods and heritage. They retain their Gaelic language, and spend long evenings playing music and telling stories.

Stoicism shares the stage with tenderness. An aging grandmother says to her dying grandson, “No one has ever said that life is to be easy. Only that it is to be lived.” No Great Mischief ends with the line “All of us are better when we’re loved.”

Outdoor work is rough, perilous and grubby, but homes are shipshape. The narrator of “The Closing Down of Summer,” one of the Island stories, describes himself and fellow coal miners: “Few of us have all our fingers and some have lost either eyes or ears from falling tools or discharged blasting caps or flying stone or splintering timbers.” Then he contrasts the mines with his family home: “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.” And in “The Boat,” a father who makes his living on a fishing boat, is allowed by his orderly wife to keep his room stuffed with books, filled with smoke, in an overall state of “disruptive chaos” in the otherwise well-regulated house.

While the main setting of the stories in Island is Cape Breton, ever-present and ghostlike are locations of the past and the future. The past is Scotland. Characters migrated to Cape Breton as a result of the 18th and 19th century Scottish Highland Clearances, when tenant farmers were evicted to make way for sheep. The future is modern, bustling cities such as Toronto and Montreal where offspring move because of the harsh quality of Cape Breton life and the difficulty of making a living there.

In “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” a grandson contrasts contemporary urban culture with his grandparents’ existence of fishing and farming: “The pencil and the telephone replace the broken, dangling reins and the marlinespike and the sealing club; and the adjusted thermostats and the methodic Muzak produce a regulated urban order far removed from the uncertainty of the elements and the unpredictability of suddenly frightened animals.”

As hard as it is to lose a father in a mine explosion or a husband in a fishing accident, such losses are expected. But truly painful clashes, conflicts or tragedies occur when losing a family member to a modern city; a transition that (to quote Albanian writer Ismael Kadare) generates an “unsettling distance in space and kinship alike.”

In “The Return,” a lawyer now living in Montreal receives a cool reception from his mother when visiting his childhood home. She compares the sons who stayed to help the family and the two who moved to live in the city, “And what is the something you two became? … Lost to us the both of you. More lost than Andrew who is buried under tons of rock two miles beneath the sea and who never saw a college door.” And later, “‘Twentieth century? … What is the 20th century to me if I cannot have my own?’”

Tales, coursing through characters’ lives like a refrain, function as purveyors of cultural history, rather than didactic meaning. As one character puts it, “I don’t remember when I first heard the story but I remember the first time I heard it and remember it …”

“Vision” is a fiery, passionate story of family secrets that plays on the contrast between physical sight and blindness, and the magical, mythical Da Shealladj, which refers to two sights or the second sight. In “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun,” a man raises a strange, wounded dog left anonymously in a box outside his home. She grows too huge to mate with any nearby animal, so he takes her away for breeding, only to see her years later in a grizzly encounter of misunderstanding that is said to have spawned a generational family curse.

MacLeod’s characters are notable for their self-reliance and industry, yet retain a sense of forgiveness, even optimism. In the fine love story, “The Tuning of Perfection,” a man is devastated when his young wife dies. Yet rather than retreat into madness or self-pity, he devotes himself to Gaelic music and song.

This is a feast of a collection, not to be read through quickly. “And I am overwhelmed now by the awfulness of oversimplification,” states a character in “The Vastness of the Dark,” trying to remember the home he left behind. With a wizardly admixture of matter-of-factness and compassion, MacLeod calls modern gains into question, without being nostalgic for the past. Oversimplifying is something that he never does.

Lynn Crawford writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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