Ages ago, I read a review somewhere that said Alistair MacLeod was unparalleled in the lexicon of Canadian writers. The article, in a publication long forgotten, said MacLeod’s work was meticulous and lyrical.
Huh, I thought to myself, now THERE’S a writer to look into. The name alone grabbed me: Alistair was my unknown grandfather. MacLeod was my much-loved aunt. And the author was a Canadian who wrote of the sea. I heard echoes in that, echoes of my not-so-distant sea-wrestling forebears; they came from Scotland into Canada, worked the Great Lakes boats, moved a little southward into Buffalo.
I really felt drawn to read MacLeod after I saw that review; but then life got busy, and I forgot. Forgot about the review. Forgot to look for MacLeod’s books.
So I was reminded one day last summer when I happened on a copy of MacLeod’s complete story collection, The Island. It was at my favorite used book store, but it looked brand new, and I immediately felt sad. Obviously someone had had this book who didn’t care about it, didn’t open it, didn’t pore over it. I skimmed through the stories, liked the sound of the words, liked the heft of the book. I would, I vowed, take this book home, read it deeply, give it the loved patina a well-read book develops–the charisma of many readings.
I bought it that day; I brought it home; I let it moulder on my shelf for half a year. Then Christmas holidays came and I amped up my reading; I read through the absolutely must-read pile; I read through the gifted books (Did you like that? Did you enjoy it? I wanted to be able to say, Yes! I read that, and here’s what I really liked about it. A gifted book is a puzzle to solve. You don’t just read for meaning; you must discern what the giver thought you’d love.)
And finally, I came to the end of that lovely but obligatory reading. My eyes lit, my hands fell, on The Island. I grabbed it up.
You’re next, I said.
I took it upstairs that very night and read the first story, “The Boat.” And I, like many, many others, smarter and faster and more erudite than I, loved it. Loved the grown-up boy narrator and his family and their life by the sea. Their tight-lippedness. The painful order of their home; the yearning of the father. The love the sisters bore him. The uncrossable chasm between the parents. I recognized the way of these people. I thought of displaced Scots I knew who worked the lake boats, of Uncle Jonathan scowling, playing cards one-handed (the other arm lost in a dockyard accident). I thought of my mother’s tales of the uncles–how they’d bring home fish, frozen in blocks of ice, and put them in the bathtub. And the ice would melt and the fish would swim–swim, until they were eaten.
And the water, of course, always there in MacLeod’s tale: the water gives life, and it harbors mysteries. And it takes life away.
I finished “The Boat,” and said, “THAT was a good story.” I couldn’t wait to read more.
So I got up on Monday (Monday is my day off), and,–although I usually don’t allow myself to read books in the very early morning,–instead of running out to get the morning paper, I poured myself some coffee and started on the second story, “The Vastness of the Dark.” This too, was in a young man’s voice, and this too began to reveal the relations between that boy and his family, especially his father. The gloomy beginning made me worry: is this narrator contemplating suicide? As I read on, I thought, No; it seems a different kind of change is coming, perhaps.
I got up to fill my coffee cup, and my son came down, and the day began, and I set the book aside. And when breakfast was over, I decided to do a power cleaning of the house from top to bottom. I thought I took the book upstairs with me, but then I ran down again with the waste basket, up with the duster, down with the rumpled linens, up with the Swiffer wet vac…I scrubbed and plumped and Hoovered away, and worked my way downstairs to do it all over again on the first floor.
And then I couldn’t find Alistair MacLeod.
I looked all over for him, in every room I’d cleaned–and I’d cleaned every room in the house. Had I put the folded clothes on top of the book? I hadn’t. Was the book fallen beneath the bed? It wasn’t. I truly looked all over, and the book was simply not to be found.
Well, that made me sad and a little anxious, but it’s not like there aren’t other books waiting patiently, so I picked up Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunshine on Scotland Street, and that was my read for the night–such a gentle read, McCall Smith. Calming.
But where was The Island? That just nagged at me…books are not supposed to disappear in a freshly cleaned house.
And suddenly tonight, I thought: linen closet. And went and looked and yes; sure enough, there it was. I had set it down on the shelf to select this week’s clean sheets, to decide which pillowcases…and I had shut the door and forgotten about it.
I am very much afraid I have become the old lady who can’t find the glasses on top of her head. But, oh well: I’m very glad to have The Island back.
I decided to see what I could find out about Alistair MacLeod. My copy of The Island was printed in 2000, and clearly, from the introduction, he was alive and well then. So I was saddened to find, via an Internet search, that Mr. MacLeod died in April of 2014. He was 77.
According to his obituary in the National Post (news.com/2014/04/24/remembering-alistair-macleod ), the man was a perfectionist. He did not, it was said, go back and rewrite his stories. But he insisted that each sentence be perfectly shaped, perfectly built–the perfect lead-in to the next line. It seems he took forever to be satisfied a piece was complete. Because of this, his body of work is small–one novel, No Great Mischief, and two short story collections. The Island collects all of his stories under one cover.
But the work he published is wonderful, say all the critics, and he is eulogized by people like Joyce Carol Oates (who taught with him, she writes,and encouraged him to get “The Boat” out there for publication) and Eugene McNamara. MacLeod won prestigious awards and was revered throughout Canada, and beyond, too.
I love his explanation of how he writes, quoted, from a live interview, on Wikipedia. MacLeod said he gets halfway through the story, and then he writes the last sentence. “I think of it as the last thing I’m going to say to the reader…I write it down and it serves as a lighthouse on the rest of my journey through the story.”
A lighthouse–isn’t that lovely. I hear the waves lapping again in the words of a storyteller who always seem to be sharing the echo of the sea.
I’m glad I have his books in front of me, that I haven’t yet heard the last thing MacLeod has to say to me.
And I’m awfully darned glad I found the darned book.