The Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod …a Review

“All of us are better when we’re loved.”

By the time I came upon those words at the end of Alistair MacLeod’s 1999 novel, No Great Mischief, I was changed, altered as a reader. I found this work by sheer accident. I was not looking for anything in particular to read, just something with which I could fill some spare time and enjoy. The word enjoy is an understatement, I was mesmerized.

Here was a pure storyteller. His approach when writing allowed him to use his craft to perfection. MacLeod once said, “I like to give the impression that I am telling a story rather than writing a story.” In No Great Mischief, MacLeod’s only novel, I found a storyteller that painted pictures using words. I could touch these words.

The story opens with a dog swimming frantically after the boat carrying the MacDonald clan as they leave Scotland in 1779 to settle in Cape Breton. After a harrowing journey, they arrive to island shores of granite, wood and Gaelic tongue to start a new life. Alexander, orphaned as a child by a horrific tragedy, has somehow persevered; his brother, Calum, destitute and alcoholic, battles his own demons. It is a story of love, murder and a commitment to never forget from where one comes. It is also about a promise being kept from one brother to another as the eyes of one closes for the last time. It is a stark, poignant and beautiful story that stays with one long after the book is closed.

No Great Mischief was my introduction to this great writer, but it was the author’s short stories that placed an indelible mark on me as a reader, and impacts my own writing to this day.

In Island: The Collected Stories, all of MacLeod’s stories including two never before published novellas are brought together. The stories were originally published in two books, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood published in 1976 and Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories in 1986.

Every story feels very real. The characters and the place, mostly Cape Breton, linger from page to page. MacLeod’s fascination with the universal theme of love and family is strikingly revealed in imaginative, yet very real, ways. For me, two stories capture this theme in starkly contrasting ways. One story is told from the shadows of memory, while the other story is captured in the light of celebration. Both are brilliant, both are perfect.

In The Boat, published in 1968, MacLeod takes you into the lives of a fishing family. The reader is there, watching from the shadows of a small house, rooms cramped and dark, full of love, yet tainted by anger. The story opens with a distant memory,

“There are times when I am half out of bed and fumbling for socks and mumbling for words before I realize that I am foolishly alone, that no one waits at the base of the stairs and no boat rides restlessly the waters of the pier.”

Filled with subtle symbolism and metaphor, the strife between mother and father and the different lives they want for their children drives the story. But, it is the boat and the work that brings a son and father together, driving one to their tragic end, the other to a renewed sense of purpose. The story is visceral, it is stark, and it is both brutal and loving. This story is regarded by many as his best, and garnered a place in the 1969 edition of The Best American Short Stories.

In the 1978 story, To Every Thing There Is a Season, MacLeod writes about a threshold over which every child will eventually cross. It is a story about a family living on a farm in Cape Breton.  It is Christmas, and an eleven year-old boy along with his parents and sisters await the return home of their older brother, from the working boats on the Great Lakes. The festive celebration and cheeriness is hard to contain. Once all are gathered together and his younger sisters have been sent to bed in anticipation of Santa Claus, the boy is invited to stay up with the others. The beauty of this transition from boyhood to manhood is captured perfectly in the story’s closing line.

“Every man moves on,” says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.” It is a holiday story that makes me smile every time I read it.

In 2014, MacLeod died at the age of 77 from a stroke. He left behind a small body of work, though it is the collective greatness of this literary output that reveals the essence of what storytelling is all about. He was a teacher who openly shared his skills as a writer with students. He was a husband and a father of seven children and, in their own words, he, was their storyteller.

In Canada, the author’s work is highly regarded and MacLeod is considered one of its greatest Atlantic Canadian writers of all time. Irish novelist Colm Toibin, while putting together the Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950, once said, “Reading these works, knowing that I could tell other readers about them, was the high point of this project.”

For me, Alistair MacLeod’s writing lingers long after the books are closed. The stories call to me from time to time to read them again. Taking me to the shores of a distant island, with its fog and wetness, its desolation, its fullness of faith, family and, most importantly, love, it lets me experience one more time, the perfection of a story being told.

No Great Mischief, Vintage International, 1999, Soft Cover $13.00                     Island: The Collected Stories, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 2000, Hard Cover $34.99

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.