Alistair MacLeod: 1936-2014

April 21, 2014 at 7:24 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

Alistair MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan and spent most of his life as a teacher at the University of Windsor, but his heart, his identity, and above all his writing was from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

MacLeod died yesterday at the age of 77 following complications from a stroke suffered in January. His entire literary work consisted of two short story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and  As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), (both collections were later published as Island) and a novel No Great Mischief  (1999). Hardly an imposing body of work you might think. But you’d only think that if you hadn’t read them.

There’s a great deal of history in Cape Breton. A great sense of the past. Perhaps too much. It’s the kind of place where people who have lived there for generations might still be called newcomers. It’s a place where when people ask your name, it’s because they’re interested in your name. (My mother’s family name is Henderson, which makes me a good Scot). I once saw two cars on the main street in Antigonish (which is not on Cape Breton, so the value of this story is slightly diminished…) stop so the drivers could talk to each other, and no one honked. I knew then something was different.

I lived in Nova Scotia in the mid-nineties, and that’s where I first head MacLeod’s name (it was in an English class I was taking where there was some controversy of his use of the word “cocksucker” in  the story “In the Fall.” ), but I didn’t read any of his work until I came back to Ontario. More’s the pity. MacLeod was a  storyteller. Within a few paragraphs in many of his stories about working people in Cape Breton, he established a setting and characters so real you felt as if they were old friends.  To this day “To Everything there is a Season” is my favourite Christmas story.

I saw MacLeod give a reading of parts of his novel a year or so before it was published. To be honest, his performance wasn’t too good. He hadn’t prepared as well as he might have done, and his delivery was a little scatter shot. Ah, but when he found his mark, the words flowed and we were entranced.

It’s tempting to say, it’s a sad day for Cape Breton or Nova Scotia or Canada or whatever. It’s broader than that. It’s a sad day for literature.

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1 Comment

  1. Alistair MacLeod | Notes from Underground said,

    […] After I wrote the above, I remembered that I had written a brief obit for MacLeod, and in it mentioned I first heard his name in an English class at St. Francis Xavier […]

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