Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to Gaelic-speaking parents from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Alistair MacLeod returned with his family to their roots in Inverness County, Cape Breton, when he was 10. Although he later obtained his doctorate at the University of Notre Dame with a dissertation on Thomas Hardy and eventually taught for more than 30 years at the University of Windsor, Ontario, he never strayed far from his spiritual home of Cape Breton.
In 17 short stories and one novel, he captured the beauty and the horror of life in this constantly changing environment with its many inhabitants and the ancestors who haunt their lives.
In his first story, “The Boat” (1968), later collected in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976), MacLeod foreshadows many of the themes that dominate his subsequent fiction: the stormy landscape, the fishermen who lead rugged lives, the wives who stay home and wait, and a son who flees this harsh realm.
The narrator, who now teaches “at a great Midwestern university”, recalls the time when he was 15 and helped his father on his boat, remembering the harbour, the wharf, and the boat. Although his father longed to go to university, his duties as a husband and a father forced him to remain behind, a stern individual who made his living from the sea.
Unlike his mother, whose horizons were “the very literal ones she scanned with her dark and fearless eyes”, their son sought more distant and more challenging
One November day, his father did not return from fishing. He “was found on November twenty-eighth, ten miles to the north and wedged between two boulders at the base of the rock-strewn cliffs where he had been hurled and slammed so many many times”. The young man comes to know and appreciate his feelings for his parents and the emotional price he has paid for his advanced education.
These Cape Breton men and women going about their daily lives against this harsh setting are the centre of MacLeod’s realistic fiction. His world becomes equivalent to Hardy’s Wessex, a remote area delineated with sensitive care and thorough understanding by a master storyteller. His characters are often sombre people who find solace in their deep-rooted traditions.
In the opening scene of MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief (1999), winner of the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, Alexander MacDonald, a successful dentist in a southwestern Ontario city, is on his usual Saturday trip to Toronto to visit his eldest brother Calum in his sordid rooming house.
Released from prison for the murder of a French Canadian miner, Calum remembers his entire family history and the history of the clan MacDonald. Like the narrator of “The Boat”, Alexander is an intellectual who abandoned Cape Breton for a successful career in dentistry; he shows the usual regret of the exile.
After the sudden drowning of his parents, Calum becomes the leader of his immediate family, eventually becoming the head of the MacDonald clan and the leader of a hard-rock mining team. Haunted by the past, he passes on his detailed knowledge of his history to Alexander, who gathers together the many stories that form the novel. In the conclusion Calum telephones Alexander to ask him to drive them both back to Cape Breton, where Calum dies.
The novel celebrates the bonds of the clan and the permanent hold it has on its members, whether they are near or far. Although MacLeod is nostalgic for this civilised form of familial behaviour, he is a sufficient realist to know that many people regard this pull of the homeland as a moment of transition which bodes ominously for the future. The book is an elegy for a way of life that has passed and for the Gaelic language that is known now only by a very few people.
MacLeod captures the conflicts of these sturdy families, and his fiction roots itself in carefully defined details only to transcend these settings in humane explorations of the personal struggles that often defeat us. He delineates his characters and their dilemmas so thoroughly and so deeply that they become not only Cape Bretoners but easily recognised people from anywhere.
Given MacLeod’s deep attachment to this part of the Canadian landscape, his burial took place on April 26, 2014, at the Catholic Church of St Margaret of Scotland in Broad Cove, Cape Breton, near his summer home in Dunvegan. His body was laid to rest in the nearby cemetery.
Alistair MacLeod was a great professor, a great writer, and a great Catholic.
David Staines is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa and the author and/or editor of 20 books on medieval and Canadian culture and literature