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Island: The Complete Stories


Island: The Complete Stories

Think of a place that seems to hang from the edge of Canada into the Atlantic. It is not farther north than Minneapolis or Butte, but it is imbued with the sense of northerly isolation. Immigrants from Scotland settled this place after a removal called "the clearances." This is Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Alistair MacLeod, a writer's writer, is descended from the Gaelic-speaking settlers. He is the articulate, gifted native son with a photographic memory. These stories are the ones you will remember whenever you hear about this part of the world. It may be Canada, but Scotland shimmers in the distance.

Some of the stories are about childhood, a short time of eager apprenticeship to fathers with fishing nets and seaworthy boats or fathers below ground in mines. The sons and fathers are no safer in the mine shafts than they are afloat on the sea. The sons and daughters leave home as soon as they can. The first story, "The Boat," is about a fisherman whose children never forgive the sea.

In "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood," a young widower goes to his boyhood home to see his son. He wants to take him with him when he leaves, but the boy is the light of his grandparent's life. How can he do this to them?

"The Golden Gift of Grey" is an affirmation of kindness, a rare commodity in any setting. An 18-year-old boy secretly plays pool with his father's friends. He wins the match, but his parents refuse the money and make him return it. What happens then?

"The Road to Rankin's Point" is a coming home story. An old woman lives in a farmstead at the end of a private road. All that is left of a busy existence is a depleted number of farm animals. The adult children of the woman worry about her and when a grandson arrives from "away" for a reunion at the old homeplace, the sons and daughters hope that he will persuade her to leave. The solution, when it comes, is the only one that makes sense.

It is never easy to choose the favorite story but I didn't think twice when I closed the book. "Clearances" comes just where it should in the book, the last story of the lot, a matter of perfect placement. It's an old man and his dog story, and the end will take your breath away.

MacLeod will test your mettle as a reader. These are, frankly, sad stories about hard times and hard choices, but they are encased, like jewels, in MacLeod's spare, economical prose. Two or three are the most you can digest in one reading. Imagine more than mere drops of balsamic vinegar or more than a spoonful of mango chutney.

Put this one on your night table.

Reviewed by Jean Marchand on March 12, 2002

Island: The Complete Stories
by Alistair MacLeod

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2002
  • Genres: Short Stories
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375713042
  • ISBN-13: 9780375713040