A large island in the middle of nowhere off the northeastern edge of mainland Nova Scotia, populated by the descendants of Scottish Highlanders fleeing the invading English and of British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, Cape Breton is a place unto itself, a world ripe for the creation of myths. And Alistair MacLeod is its born chronicler. Like many of his generation, he had to leave his island to make a living, but unlike his peers, he didn't go into the world's mines, a service position in Toronto, or the Alberta oil fields. Instead, he became an English teacher and ended up just a few miles away from us at the University of Windsor — close enough that we in Ann Arbor have had a couple of occasions to hear him read his work here. He has a quiet and dignified bearing, a shock of white hair above a very ruddy face, and an accent that sounds neither Canadian nor Scots.
Michael Ondaatje has called MacLeod "one of the great undiscovered writers of our time," but MacLeod has been completely content to let his literary career take shape quietly, off center stage. For some thirty years he has published an occasional story in the literary journals, and in the 1990s he published one novel, No Great Mischief, an unforgettable chronicle of one Cape Breton mining family.
Island, his complete short stories, is his only other book. The sixteen longish stories here are quiet, informed by history and shaped by their physical landscape, but they also have the tone and feel of folklore. Magical things happen on MacLeod's Cape Breton: history is never in the past; spirits rise out of the ocean and take old people off in small boats.
Even dogs — and there are always dogs in MacLeod's stories — carry their inescapable family curses. The exquisite "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun" begins this way:
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 to lick his face, which she loved to do, her paws would jolt against his shoulders with such force that she would come close to knocking him down and he would be forced to take two or three backward steps before he could regain his balance.
The man's excessive love for this dog ultimately costs him his life.
Alistair MacLeod returns to Ann Arbor to read from Island at Liberty Borders on Tuesday, April 2.