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People > Scots of Windsor Today > Alistair MacLeod

People: Scots of Windsor Today

Alistair MacLeod (1936- ):

"All of us are better when we are loved."
~ Alistair MacLeod [No Great Mischief]

Although one of Canada's most celebrated writers spent his first ten years of life in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, his home is Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. After the war, his family returned east to live in the Dunvegan farmhouse his great-grandfather built in the 1860s when he first emigrated from Scotland. Even while living in Windsor, Ontario, as an adult, MacLeod would return to Inverness County with his wife, Anita, and their six children during summer recess, and he made the old farmhouse his permanent residence after retiring from the University of Windsor in 2000. MacLeod was raised in "the midst of a tribal, Celtic family much given to remembering the past and measuring the present in terms of it," with family members repeating stories to bind the past, present, and future strains of family heritage into one unified thread. 1 And while this Scottish heritage permeates the very core of MacLeod's writing, the careful reader will see his or her own cultural history floating beneath the words on the page.

The MacLeod men made their livelihoods in Canada by mining, and Alistair hailed from a long line of miners. As a student, he enjoyed English, and won his school's grade 12 award in that subject, but he was "hardly a child prodigy" who wanted to be a writer from a young age. 2 "I thought of it as the way somebody who can sing may think of the abilities, and I say well, I can sing or I can catch a baseball but I don't think that I will ever make my living at it," he explained to CBC Radio personality Shelagh Rogers. He didn't begin to take his writing seriously until graduate school.

After graduating high school, MacLeod earned a certificate from the Nova Scotia Teachers' College in Truro and began a one-year term as a schoolteacher on Port Hood Island, near Cape Breton. He then entered St. Francis Xavier University in 1957 and pursued a dual B.A. and B.Ed degree before continuing for a Master's at the University of New Brunswick, which he earned in 1961. In 1963 he went to the United States to enter a doctoral program in nineteenth century British literature at the University of Notre Dame. "One of the things that you do when you study for a Ph.D. in English is you read and you analyze stories and various kinds of literature, he said of his blossoming interest in short story writing. "And as I was reading all of these stories and analyzing them, I began to think maybe I could write some of these stories instead of just analyzing other people's stories all the time." 3

These thoughts, combined with his physical removal from his beloved Cape Breton landscape, prompted MacLeod to begin writing seriously. He did not, however, attempt to make a living from it, and instead took a post in 1969 as a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. Before embarking on his career as a university professor, however, MacLeod financed his way through university by working in the mines during summers and weekends, and even spent time in a logging camp on the north end of Vancouver Island. While other loggers deplored the working conditions, the athletic, young MacLeod was so far from home that he couldn't leave, and ended up being promoted to second rigger, a position that involved aligning the spire trees. He never minded the hard labour and was grateful to have work. The world of logging, mining, and fishing even provided him with material for his short stories. In "The Closing Down of Summer," for example, a miner struggled with how to describe the nature of his intensely physical world to his wife and children, the enormous risks involved in every detail of the job. MacLeod describes the inner working of a life spent in the mines as "the beauty of motion on the edge of violence."

Although MacLeod's canon comprises just sixteen short stories and one novel to date, he is considered one of the country's most accomplished prose writers. He began publishing his first poems and short stories in literary journals after beginning his professorship at the University of Windsor, and he released his first short story collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, in 1976. It was another ten years before his second collection, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, appeared. The stories in these two books earned him international acclaim as they highlighted Cape Breton's socioeconomic realities and familial and community relationships against a mythic backdrop of the natural landscape.

Each of the seven stories in MacLeod's first collection is narrated by a young man facing a crossroad in his life. "The Boat," for example, follows a protagonist who must decide whether to stay at home and become a fisherman like his father, or leave Cape Breton to pursue a professional career at a university. One of MacLeod's most famous stories, "The Boat" focuses on "the profound dignity and heroism of traditional forms of human labour" as father and son struggle with opposing choices with their life's work. 4 As the narrator discovers that "it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following your dreams and inclinations," MacLeod forces the reader to contemplate the necessary sacrifices in life. "It never entered in his mind that his father would want to do the same thing that he wanted to do, like go to university to read books," MacLeod explained about the way "The Boat's" protagonist viewed his father. "But later he has that kind of moment where he sort of says, just because you do it does not necessarily mean that you like it, or you could not have done other things." 5

The questions MacLeod examines in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are not limited to Nova Scotia, or even to a distinctly Canada heritage. How does a person become who he is? How does one live in the present and look toward the future without losing her heritage? These are universal questions, and MacLeod's answers have made him one of Canada's most important twentieth-century writers.

Patterns of exile and return run throughout the seven stories in As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. The male protagonists yearn to escape the poverty of their Cape Breton lives only to discover that their very beings are inextricably linked with the physicality of their homes. MacLeod's fiction highlights the conflict between maintaining two hundred years of rural values and Gaelic heritage in Maritime Canada versus flight and assimilation into a modern, urban Canada. The university-educated children of miners and fishermen almost always fail to thrive in their new surroundings, and find themselves drawn back to their forsaken families and Gaelic traditions. MacLeod's stories are always set against an ancestral past that is constantly haunting the present, the stories themselves yearning for some memory forsaken by the protagonist it has permanently scarred.

Prominent Scots-Canadian writer Jane Urquhart explained why these themes have so desperately endeared MacLeod to Canada: "We Canadians are, after all, a nation composed of people longing for a variety of abandoned homelands and tribes that inhabited them, whether these be the distant homelands of our recent immigrants, the abducted homelands of our native peoples, the rural homelands vacated by post-war migrations to the cities, or the various European or Asian homelands left behind by our earliest settlers." 6 MacLeod's stories seek to preserve the "emotional truth" of our exiled ancestors, the truths we ourselves might bury deep inside as we exile ourselves into the modern world.

MacLeod's exploration of these themes ensured that his stories would be consistently anthologized in such prestigious publications as The Best American Short Stories and The Best Canadian Short Stories. But it wasn't until 1999 that he debuted his third publication. He began writing the novel in 1986, but between his demanding career at the University of Windsor, the writing workshop he taught at the Banff Center during summer, a family life with six children, and the annual migration between Windsor and Cape Breton, MacLeod's progress was slow. His publisher at McClellan & Stewart, Donald Gibson, pressed him to release in the fall of 1999 since very few of Canada's major literary figures (Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart) were coming out with anything new at that time - "so a book by a respected but not widely-know author like Alistair MacLeod would have ... room to breathe," Gibson said.

MacLeod had originally intended to call his first novel No Great Mischief If They Fail, but discovered that a book with that title that had been written by a Scottish author of the same surname was floating around in Britain. The manuscript was published under a shortened title, No Great Mischief, to critical acclaim, winning the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction, the Raddall Award for Fiction, the Atlantic Provinces Booksellers Choice Award, and the prestigious Trillium Award for Fiction. MacLeod received two awards at the 2000 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards, one for Fiction Book of the Year and another for Author of the Year. In 2001, No Great Mischief won the highly prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards.

MacLeod's first and only novel, No Great Mischief, delves deep into Cape Breton's Highland heritage as the protagonist narrates the history of his family from its eighteenth-century emigration from Scotland to the present day. Beginning with the emigration of Calum MacDonald - a Culloden survivor and a Lord Cumberland collaborator - with his wife and twelve children from their Highland home in 1779, the MacDonalds have been haunted by the unmitigated hardships of life in rural Nova Scotia for two hundred years. Although Alexander MacDonald, the novel's protagonist, lives in the urban expanse of southern Ontario as an orthodontist, he typifies the values of family cohesiveness and upholds the MacDonald history by recounting stories, both humorous and heart-breaking, that sustain him during hardship. The memories of being brought up by his Gaelic-speaking grandparents, the heritage of his home in Cape Breton, hold him to the area despite his attempts to break into his own identity free of the influence of clan associations. But clan association is everything in Alexander's society: his grandmother's mottoes - "we are all better when we're loved," and "always look after your own blood" - echo throughout the novel like threats.

Even though English is the working language of the novel, Gaelic is the sentimental language "lurking inside the ventricles of the heart[s]" of the characters. 7 The phrase, "do you remember" reverberates throughout the whole of the narrative as Alexander struggles with the haunting oral heritage of his family. But No Great Mischief crosses social and cultural borders despite its Celtic heart as it sings songs of lament for lost families, identities, and heritages. It has no beginning, middle, and end, in the traditional sense, just as the histories of different peoples have no distinct parts, only patterns and cycles.

Critics have compared MacLeod's narrative techniques to those employed by other twentieth-century masters such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Thomas Hardy. MacLeod has been applauded for his technique of describing past events in the present tense to convey the immediacy of cultural and personal memory, and for the unsentimental way he has portrayed Nova Scotia's cultural decline. "Every word feels true," said critic Frederick Busch as he praised MacLeod's first short story collection. "Honest emotion is as sensually rendered as the blood, salt, and waterlogged wood of Cape Breton." And readers can be certain that every word of MacLeod's poetic prose was painstakingly crafted. "I sometimes wonder if it's worth spending so much time on one sentence or one phrase," he told The Windsor Star. 8

While Canadian critics have been pointing to MacLeod as one of the country's best contemporary short fiction writers since the beginning of his career, it wasn't until the late 1980s that he became known to an international audience. Since then, his work has attracted considerable scholarly attention and critical acclaim, and has found widespread audiences throughout the world. In 2005 he was the subject of a documentary produced by the National Film Board, Reading Alistair MacLeod, which explores his life in interview with him, his family, and admirers such as Colm Toibin and Margaret Atwood. His commitment to Canadian literature was recognized in 2008 with an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

For over thirty years, MacLeod was Windsor's most valuable cultural resource. Now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Windsor, he spends most of his time in the Cape Breton farmhouse in which his father and grandfather were both born, although he still keeps office hours whenever he's in Windsor "and offers advice about writing to anyone who knocks on his door." 9

Since MacLeod hasn't been doing much writing lately, his fans must wait patiently to discover what's in store next. His stories do more than make us question how we become who we are; they force us to step back and look beyond our own borders, whether cultural or physical. For his "birthplace is Canadian, his emotional heartland Cape Breton, his heritage Scottish, but his writing is of the world." 10

All of MacLeod's fiction can be found in the Windsor Public Library
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  1. Urquhart, Jane, "The Vision of Alistair MacLeod," Alistair MacLeod: Essays on His Works, Irene Guilford, ed., Guernica Editions: Toronto, 2001. 36
  2. Rogers, Shelagh, "An Interview with Alistair MacLeod," Alistair MacLeod, 12
  3. Rogers, "Interview," 13
  4. Keefer, Janice Kulyk, "Loved Labour Lost: Alistair MacLeod's Elegiac Ethos," Alistair MacLeod, 73
  5. Jarovi, Robert, "An Interview with Alistair MacLeod," The Scots Canadian, Vol. 5 (Feb. 2002). 6
  6. Urquhart, "Vision," 37
  7. MacLeod, Alistair, No Great Mischief, McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 1999. 193
  8. Shaw, Ted, "Windsor author MacLeod wins PEN/Malamude Award," The Windsor Star, 24 April 2009
  9. Shaw, Star, 24 April 2009
  10. Guilford, Irene, "Introduction," Alistair MacLeod, 10
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