Island by Alistair MacLeod – A Book Review

Alistair MacLeod writes of lonely places and lonely people, in the far off reaches of Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia. His characters are the descendants of dislocated Scots, torn from their homes in Scotland during the Highland Clearances of the 19th century, when raising cattle and sheep was far more enticing and profitable to landlords than tenants who reared only children. They bear resemblance to the island peoples off the coasts of Scotland, who were – and in some cases still are – bound by the tactile circumference of their landscape as well as bound by generations of tradition.

Even the jobs are lonely – mining deep in the bowels of the earth or fishing far, far out at sea. The isolation they live in becomes the vacation land of the rich, who need to “get away from it all.” This is evidenced in one story in which a wealthy German couple are willing to offer huge sums for a widower’s “ocean frontage” because it is better than any they’ve seen in Europe. More and more, the resolute souls, usually of the older generation, who cling to the only life they’ve known, become outcasts and oddities – envied by outsiders and pitied by younger relations.

Sadness ensues when tradition breaks under the insistent advance of our modern world. Like cottage crofters unsettled by the coming of the industrial age of 150 years ago, MacLeod’s heroes and heroines must change in order to survive. Sons who choose not to follow in their father’s footsteps as miners or fisherman, travel to the US or other, more densely populated areas of Canada, leaving their parents to face old age alone, like the widower who sells the last of his livestock, because he can no longer work the land by himself.

The connection between old Scotland and new Scotland or “Nova Scotia” is strong in tradition. These folk sing in Gaelic, talk in Gaelic. They mine for coal and fish the seas, as did many in Scotland. In one story, a Nova Scotia native is on furlough during WW II and heads to North Western Scotland; he is heartened by the familiar Gaelic spoken around him and feels quickly at home. It is very apparent that the Nova Scotians are but transplanted Scots folk, strangers in a strange land that becomes painfully dear to them. The landscape of Nova Scotia is both harsh and beautiful, like the lives its inhabitants lead.

MacLeod is well read and puts his knowledge to good use, comparing one of his heroines to headstrong Eustacia Vye, from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. Hardy’s characters are often victims of circumstance, geography and tradition, just as are MacLeod’s.

MacLeod’s cast of characters are warm and familiar to him, as if he is retelling tales of his actual family and friends. Perhaps he is. He writes with a poignancy which I have found in no other writer, as if each story is a complete encapsulation of a life, which only he can preserve – which, indeed, he has the responsibility of preserving. Tomas O’Cronin wrote in his Irish Blasket Island memoir Islandman, that “the like of us will never be again.” MacLeod seems painfully aware of this, that although traditions may be kept, in sparse isolation they become mostly fodder for folklorists and anthropologists. The strength of a full community, living in common and in the old ways, is a thing of the past.

Copyright Janet McGrane Bennett 2006