Alistair MacLeod remembered
So sad this week to hear that Alistair MacLeod died – at the far too young age of 77 years old.
I had the great pleasure and privilege of hosting Alistair MacLeod at the Stockey Centre in November 2007. I had invited him a number of times and it was difficult to arrange a date – until finally he agreed – announcing from the stage I had been “persistent”. I later learned he had sent his report in to the Canada Council saying that his experience reading in Parry Sound was one of his best.
I have followed the writing of Alistair MacLeod since reading his first short story collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood in 1976, followed by As Birds Bring Forth the Sun in 1986. These books have been my gift of choice for any boy at the age of about 16 or 17 as an introduction to adult literature. They are just as marvelous on re-reading all these years later as when I first read them so long ago. His use of language is a delight, and the lives of the people - the men of Cape Breton especially - are so intensely realized as to be both heart breaking and inspiring. These stories have now been collected into a lovely one volume compilation Island.
Although Alistair MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan, he moved with his family to their farm in Cape Breton at the age of 10; and it is Cape Breton and its people that are at the heart of his short stories and his only novel No Great Mischief. As his character Alexander does in the novel, Alistair MacLeod himself worked as a miner and a logger to finance his education, gaining a PhD from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana in 1968. He became a professor at the University of Windsor the following year and taught creative writing until retirement. Always, he returns to Cape Breton in the summers to write.
No Great Mischief was published in 1999. It won two Canadian Bookseller Awards and Ontario's Trillium Award, and became a best seller as one of The New York Times Notable Books of 2000. It missed out on a Governor-General's Award because of an oversight by the publisher on the application. It went on, however, to win one of the biggest literary prizes in the world, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
There is a wonderful amount of Cape Breton history woven into No Great Mischief, but really it is a novel about grief, about the death of those one loves, and ultimately about the power of "blood" - of family support and acceptance and the care of one for another.
It is a novel about two brothers among a large family. Calum the eldest and Alexander the youngest - all touched by the death of their parents. Calum says to his brother " it's just the same sadness in different packages" as he talks of how much he still misses his parents. There is also the theme of loyalty - of family - and the recurring story of a dog. The first dog followed the ship leaving Scotland and had to be pulled into his boat, arriving with them in Nova Scotia. This story is told from the perspective of those on the shore, left behind in Scotland, and generations later the same story is told by the family in Nova Scotia from the perspective of their ancestors on the boat that day. That dog was the beginning of many generations of dogs belonging to this family, including one owned by Alexander's parents.
The death of Alexander and Calum's parents leave the grandparents, grieving for their own children - grateful, lucky, they have the grandchildren. Others consider Calum lucky he was not with his parents that day and therefore did not die with them. "I look at it differently" he said, (years later) "If I had been with them I might have saved them" and he is haunted by this all of his life.
The novel ends with the words "All of us are better when we're loved". It is that love between these brothers, after all of the tragedy in their lives, that makes this novel so extraordinary.
Reading No Great Mischief is like listening to the voice of Alistair MacLeod - perhaps explained by the fact that he writes out each sentence of his books in long hand and then rewrites it until it is right. He reads it out loud because he wants it to have a type of rhythm, as he tells the story. Those of us lucky enough to have met the man, and heard him read, will continue to have that voice with us when we read his words, and he will be remembered always.