CanLit Challenge Book #7: Island by Alistair MacLeod
Filed under: CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 9:42 pm on Thursday, January 12, 2006

Book 7, Island (2001) – Alistair MacLeod
From the back cover:
“Alistair MacLeod’s collected stories, including two never before published, are gathered together for the first time in Island. These sixteen superbly crafted stories, most of them based in Cape Breton even if its people stray elsewhere, depict men and women living out their lives against the haunting landscape that surrounds them. Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relationships, MacLeod maps the close bonds and impassable chasms that lie between man and woman, parent and child, and invokes memory and myth to celebrate the continuity of the generations, even in the midst of unremitting change. Eloquent, humane, life-affirming, the stories in this astonishing collection seize us from the outset and remain with us long after the final page.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia article on Alistair MacLeod
the Wikipedia article on Cape Breton Island
the Wikipedia article on the mining disasters in Springhill, Nova Scotia
an interesting interview with Alistair MacLeod

Note: This book includes all the stories from his two other collections: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986), so I won’t be including either of those as separate books in the CanLit Challenge.

My thoughts:
I can see why they say MacLeod’s short stories are among the best ever written in English. Beautiful, lyrical, poignant. His talent with language is phenomenal.

The Boat

There are times even now, when I awake at four in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs or that the shorebound men are tossing pebbles against my window while blowing their hands and stomping their feet impatiently on the frozen steadfast earth. 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 in the waters by the pier.

This is the opening passage of Alistair MacLeod’s first published short story, “The Boat”. It isn’t until the end of the story that we discover the full meaning of this weighty beginning.

“The Boat” has the same concerns as most of the other stories by MacLeod. It is in essence, about the change from the old ways of living (fishing in this case) to modern life with the resulting break between generations. As we (as peoples) educate the younger generations much is gained: we are safer, more comfortable, more learned; yet much is lost: our language, our songs, our connection to the land, and maybe above all, our bonds with our parents and their ancestors. This common theme makes his stories universal. All over the world cultures are going extinct, old knowledge and wisdom are disappearing.*

I liked this story very much. MacLeod’s language is phenomenal, almost poetical or mythical. At the same time it is very sensual. We can see the father’s room, piled with books, we can smell the sea. And what an ending–tragic in the dramatic sense of the word.

*Writing this I am reminded a bit of the penultimate chapter of The Blue Mountains of China, also in a way, about the loss of one’s heritage in the modern world.

The Vastness of the Dark

They are not greatly surprised to see me as it is often like this, just the three of us in the quiet early morning. But today I cannot afford to be casual and I must say what must be said in the short space of time occupied by only the three of us. “I think I’ll go away today,” I say, trying to sound as offhand as possible. Only a slight change in the rhythm of my mother’s poking at the stove indicates that she has heard me, and my father still stands looking through the window out to sea.

This story is of a young man, the eldest son of a miner, on his 18th birthday. He decides that he wants to leave his family behind and strike out on his own, abandoning his history and remaking himself. He discovers that one can leave a place but leaving the forces that have brought him to adulthood aren’t so easy to escape. A wonderful story of self-realization and recognition. The reference to the Springhill mine disasters also struck a note given the recent mining accident in West Virginia.

The Golden Gift of Grey

And then it was like the beginning of a play in which his father had the first lines, ‘And where the hell have you been?’ Lines that came out clear and well rehearsed, as if he had been practising and practising, and they were not loud nor hard as he had expected. And he – he had not rehearsed, he had not studied his lines well enough, but he stumbled out into the middle of the stage and began to take his part, and a voice within him said, ‘Tell him the truth,’ and the peculiar unrehearsed voice said, ‘I was playing pool.’

A teenaged boy stays out all night winning money at pool but his parents are less than pleased when he proudly offers his winnings as a gift of appreciation to them.

A very complicated story, not in terms of plot, but in terms of expression and meaning. What does the title refer to? Why is Caudell so different from Jesse’s own father? I’d be very interested to know what others thought of this one.

The Return

‘I know,’ says my grandmother now very softly, putting her hand upon his shoulder, ‘it’s not you. But it seems that we can only stay forever if we stay right here. As we have stayed to the seventh generation. Because in the end that is all there is -just staying. I have lost three children at birth but I’ve raised eight sons. I have one a lawyer and one a doctor who committed suicide, one who died in coal beneath the sea and one who is a drunkard and four who still work the coal like their father and those four are all that I have that stand by me. It is these four that carry their father now that he needs it, and it is these four that carry the drunkard, that dug two days for Andrew’s body and that have given me thirty grandchildren in my old age.’

A 10 year old boy meets his father’s family for the first time and observes how life is different for the Cape Breton miners than for his mother’s professional family in Montreal.

The mother in this story seemed excessively nervous and anxious about everything. I would say that that seems unrealistic, except I can imagine people just like that. A very interesting perspective for telling the story. Because it’s a child observer, we can’t quite get into the minds of the adult characters except for what they say and the body language reported.

In the Fall

They are talking about our old horse Scott, who has been with us all of my life. My father had been his driver for two winters in the underground and they had become fond of one another and in the time of the second spring, when he left the mine forever, the man had purchased the horse from the Company so that they might both come out together to see the sun and walk upon the grass. And that the horse might be saved from the blindness that would inevitably come if he remained within the deeps; the dark that would make him like itself.

This has got to be one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. I actually had to stop reading for a little while because it made me cry so much. I went to a screening of the documentary “Reading Alistair MacLeod” and after the show, MacLeod who was there did a Q&A session and someone asked him to tell more about this story. One of the things I remember him saying is that at a few gatherings he’s been asked to read this story and he’s refused because it is too sad even for him to read out loud. (“As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” is almost as sad!)

This is the story of how practical, logistical, realistic concerns can war with our emotional attachments and love. What do we do when someone we love gets old, gets ill, becomes difficult or even impossible to care for? How do we let go and what is the price we pay?

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

Now in the early evening the sun is flashing everything in gold. It bathes the blunt grey rocks that loom yearningly out toward Europe and it touches upon the stunted spruce and the low-lying lichens and the delicate hardy ferns and the ganglia-rooted moss and the tiny tough rock cranberries. The grey and slanting rain squalls have swept in from the sea and then departed with all the suddenness of surprise marauders. Everything before them and beneath them has been rapidly, briefly and thoroughly drenched and now the clear droplets catch and hold the sun’s infusion in a myriad of rainbow colours. Far beyond the harbour’s mouth more tiny squalls seem to be forming, moving rapidly across the surface of the sea out there beyond land’s end where the blue ocean turns to grey in rain and distance and the strain of eyes. Even farther out, somewhere beyond Cape Spear lies Dublin and the Irish coast; far away but still the nearest land, and closer now than is Toronto or Detroit, to say nothing of North America’s more western cities; seeming almost hazily visible now in imagination’s mist.

This story is almost mythical in it’s conception and poetic in it’s expression. I can’t say too much about what it’s about without giving too much away. A man journeys to Newfoundland and spends a night with an older couple and their young grandson.

Like all of these short stories, I could read this over and over again. Each one is like a miniature novel or even a miniature epic.

The Road to Rankin’s Point

It was a bright and quiet night without a breath of wind, as my grandmother has often told us. All night she kept looking out across the death-white fields for the form of her returning husband. Her eyes became so strained that as the dawn approached the individual spruce trees at the clearing’s edge began to take his shape and size and seemed to move toward the house. First one and then another appearing to move and take on human form. Once she was so certain that she went to the door and opened it, only to stare again across the whitened, empty stillness of the silent winter snow.

A death long ago, a death yet to come, and the death of an era merge and flow into and out of one another. Another tear-jerker. MacLeod is a master at evoking a sense of time and place while at the same time calling forth that universal mythic beyond-time-and-place, and he does it yet again in this story.

The Closing Down of Summer

I would like to tell my wife and children something of the way my years pass by on the route to my inevitable death. I would like to explain somehow what it is like to be a gladiator who fights always the impassiveness of water as it drips on darkened stone. And what it is like to work one’s life in the tightness of confined space. I would like somehow to say how I felt when I lost my father in Kirkland Lake or my younger brother in Springdale, Newfoundland. I would like to say how frightened I am sometimes of what I do. And of how I lie awake at night aware of my own decline and of the diminishing of the men around me.

Have you ever wondered what life might be like if you lived as a miner? Even if you haven’t, reading this story you’ll get a sense not just of a regular guy going to a 9-5 or even 8-8 job, but of a man called to this as a kind of vocation. And again, MacLeod manages to put this on an archetypal, mythic level.

Reading MacLeod’s stories have a similar impression as reading something aloud in Latin. Even if the content or subject matter is mundane, ordinary, everyday, somehow it sounds weighty, poetic, sacred.

To Everything There is a Season

On the way home, although the stones have cooled, we remain happy and warm. We listen to the creak of the leather harness and the hiss of runners on the snow and begin to think of the potentiality of presents. When we are about a mile frome home the horse senses his destination and breaks into a trot and then into a confident lope. My brother lets him go and we move across the winter landscape like figures freed from a Christmas card. The snow from the horse’s hooves falls about our heads like the whiteness of the stars.

What a delightful story (and a bit sad–of course, it’s A.M. after all) about that time when we go from being one of the kids to one of the adult ‘conspirators’ at Christmas time, and how, surely, everyone needs to keep a bit of Santa Claus with them. Again, beautiful descriptions evoking the kind of childhood Christmastime in a Canadian winter that we all ought to have memories of.

Second Spring

At the base of the hill beside the road there was a rail fence which formed a separation, but I could see that the rails and the posts were rotten and that they represented perhaps more the idea of a fence than the fact of one. I thought that with his size and speed and the downward grade of the hill he would perhaps jump over it, but instead he merely walked through it as if it did not exist at all.

This story should come with a warning. It’s about a boy who wants to breed a certain cow with a certain bull and well, things don’t go quite as he plans them. However, as a kind of background to that, the narrator gives the reader an in-depth account of the farm’s yearly cycle including a very graphic detailed description of how the animals are slaughtered. I mean it’s not as though I don’t *know* what’s done, I just don’t feel a need to read a vivid account of it.

Anyway, I know MacLeod loves animals–you can sense that in his stories–they’re all populated with dogs and horses and even the odd eagle (and a cow in this story) that people feel emotionally connected to. It always seems though, that bad things often happen to them. Not any different than the people in his stories through I guess.

Winter Dog

The snow was heavier now and blowing in my face but we were moving rapidly, and when we came to the stretch of arena-like ice we skimmed across it almost like an iceboat, the profile of the frozen seal at the front of the sleigh like those figures at the prows of Viking ships. At the very end the smooth stretch, we went through. From my position at the end of the sleigh I felt him drop almost before I saw him, and rolled backwards seconds before the sleigh and seal followed him into the blackness of the water. He went under once, carried by his own momentum, but surfaced almost immediately with his head up and his paws scrambling at the icy, jagged edge of the hole; but when the weight and momentum of the sleigh and its burden struck, he went down again, this time out of sight.

A boy and his dog go out onto the pack ice along the shore and fall through. No one knows where they are, so they have only each other to rely upon for rescue. A very pleasant framing story, and of course a touch of tragedy.

The Tuning of Perfection

After he had stabled his horses and fed them, he would go into their house and they would meet one another in the middle of the kitchen floor, holding and going into one another sometimes while the snow and frost still hung so heavily on his clothes that they creaked when he moved or steamed near the presence of the stove. The lamp would be stilled on the kitchen table and they be alone. Only the monogamous eagles who nested in the tree even farther up the mountain seemed above them.

A bittersweet story of love gained and lost (or perhaps kept as a kind of treasure). A story too, of a love for music that holds a kind of sacredness that no one else cares about or remembers.

As Birds Bring Forth the Sun

Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond. She was large and grey, a sort of staghound from another time. And if she jumped up lick his face, which she loved to do, her paws would jolt against his shoulders with such force that she would come close knocking him down and he would be forced to take two three backward steps before he could regain his balance. And he himself was not a small man, being slightly over six feet and perhaps one hundred and eighty pounds.

Heartwrenching. And again, almost a folk tale, beginning in the barely remembered mists of a few generations ago and stretching forth to the present with all the force of immediacy. Brilliant.


I don’t remember when I first heard the story but I remember the first time that I heard it and remembered it. By that I mean the first time it made an impression on me and more or less became mine; sort of went into me the way such things do, went into me in such a way that I knew it would not leave again but would remain there forever.

Not just one story, but several interwoven stories with a common theme of vision, sight, and blindness. Just as in real life, one story has connection with many others and resonates across time. In the distant past, a man with one blind eye but with second sight is executed for prophesying the wrong thing. Two young twin boys go to visit their grandmother but get dropped off at the wrong house. Who is the blind woman who lives in squalor with her animals? Columba, an Irish saint, leaves Ireland to found the monastery at Iona. A young man has a relationship with an unstable young woman & breaks it off when told to by the local clergyman who says the scandal is what is causing him to see the future. A man loses his sight on the beach of Normandy. A fight breaks out at a Legion hall and a child’s dream to be a pilot is shattered. Many stories, yet all one story at the same time.


‘Do you stay here all the time? Even in the winter?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘most of the time.’
She was defensive, like most of her family, on the subject of the island. Knowing that they were often regarded as slightly eccentric because of how and where they lived. Always anticipating questions about the island’s loneliness.
‘Some people are lonely no matter where they are,’ he said as if he were reading her mind.
‘Oh,’ she said. She had never heard anyone say anything quite like that before.
‘Would you like to live somewhere else?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Maybe.’
‘I have to go now,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you later. I’ll come back.’

A very powerful story. I’m constantly amazed at how much MacLeod manages to ‘stuff’ into a story. It’s really no wonder that it takes him so long to write them. Each one is truly a little masterpiece. Again, a very sensual piece of writing giving the reader a sense of almost endless time. Yet the story is focused on the lifespan of one person. One could probably read this many times over and get something new each time. Someone has even written an opera setting for this one.


Sitting there in his Canadian uniform he was aware of his difference and his similarity. Quietly, he took from his pocket the scribbled addresses and bits of information. Haltingly he said to the shepherd ‘Ciamar a tha sibh? (How are you?) Nach eil e latha breagha a th’ann? (Isn’t it a nice day?)’
Instantly the train coach fell silent and all eyes turned towards him. ‘GlĂ© mhath. S’e gu dearbh. Tha e blath agus grianach. (Very well. Yes, it’s sunny and warm),’ said the shepherd, and then eyeing his epaulette said in measured English, ‘You are from Canada? You are from the Clearances?’He uttered both statements in the form of questions and pronounced the word “Clearances” as if it were a place instead of a matter of historical eviction.
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I guess so.’

Every one is a bridge between what has gone before and what is to come. In this story a man retains threads of his family’s past in Scotland, of his own past when life was lived differently. But time moves forward and things change. Can one change to the same degree as what surrounds them? Or does there come a time when the future is too far gone, and a man must lie with the past?

A very appropriate story to end the collection with. I’m looking forward to reading the novel.


  • milena said:  
    (On January 26th, 2006 at 7:10 am)

    A friendly wave from another blogger and a bookcrosser!:-)) I also try to keep a journal about my books. You can have a look at it on

  • Ibis said:  
    (On February 7th, 2006 at 10:22 am)

    Hi milena! {waving} I started this just for my CanLit project but I decided to make a few off-topic posts about other book related issues. I’ll be sure to check out your blog.

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