Island: The Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod

As promised, my first book review of 2013! Alistair MacLeod. Just his name evokes images of the Cape Breton landscape. I really think that there are no Canadian writers whose worldwide reputation is built on such little writing; that is a testament to just how good his books are. MacLeod has five books published, three of which are completely original works: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, and his only novel, No Great Mischief. He also has two books where existing writing was essentially repackaged: the story “To Every Thing There is a Season,” from his second collection, was reworked into an illustrated Christmas book and, the book I am reviewing here, Island, is all of the stories from his two previously published collections plus two unpublished stories. On the back cover of Island, Michael Ondaatje compares MacLeod to Faulkner and Chekhov in his use of regionalism to tell universal stories. This is the essence of Alistair MacLeod’s short stories. In his writing, Cape Breton Island acts as living laboratory to examine the larger changing world.

If you were to sit through an Island Studies class, you would learn the four primary characteristics of island life: totality, intimacy, monopoly, and exile. MacLeod’s stories embody all of these elements. They show the insularity of island life and some of the common challenges of isolation in the North Atlantic. But, more universally, they take on the ramifications of monumental social change on small traditional communities. MacLeod’s stories are set in a time when choosing to attend university instead of work the fishing boats is an insult to the family; where reading is considered a waste of time; where tourists are seen as threatening; and where living off the land is simply a way of life. The magic of MacLeod’s writing though is its exploration on what happens when these traditional beliefs get turned upside down.

Most of the stories in Island are framed. By that, for those of you who haven’t toiled away in English classes for years and years, I mean they are told through a series of flashbacks. This provides an interesting contrast and juxtaposition to the “then” and “now.” Typically, the “present” in the narrative centers on a middle-aged man looking back on important events that took place anywhere from childhood to young adulthood. The range of events is as diverse as the population of Cape Breton: abandoning the traditional family trade (fishing, mining, etc), leaving the island, or even finding out Santa is not real (sorry folks). While the immediate conflict is “local” to Cape Breton, the sense of place that emerges from the themes is universal. With a few modifications, these stories could take place anywhere.

The highlights of the collection are “The Boat” (a highly anthologized classic around the world), “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” “As Birds Bring forth the Sun,” “To Every Thing There is a Season,” “Clearances” and “Island.” If you just want to pick away at a few of the stories, these are definitely the ones to tackle.

Island and MacLeod’s only novel, No Great Mischief, are absolute masterpieces of not just Atlantic or Canadian fiction, but of English literature. The quality of writing is flawless. The characters are incredibly well developed. And MacLeod tells a story in only a few pages that would take lesser writers entire books. Thematically, Island feels like over 20 small novels and should be read by everyone.

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