Remembering and Reading Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod died yesterday at age 77. For many years he has been one of my favourite authors. I've read his books many times and have always found it sad that more Canadians have not read his works. I've often looked him up in bookstores, hoping to see another published collection or novel. There is a small (but growing) club of great Canadian authors, though I am sure its members changes depending on who's speaking. For me, Alistair MacLeod is at the top of that list and his passing moved me to write this post in the hopes that maybe some of our readers will pick up his work.

I'm not sure why I like MacLeod over any other author, particularly Canadian ones. It's rare that I read a Canadian author who I enjoy but is also a typical, traditional Canadian author. MacLeod, like Margaret Laurence or Jane Urquhart or any number of Canadian authors before him, reflected often on the immutable landscapes and expansive natural world that pervades Canadian fiction. Every narrator has to reflect on towering forests, or the changing colour of leaves, or imposing mountains or some speck on the map of our country. After a few hundred pages of this, it's easy to close the book and remind yourself that sometimes a tree is just a tree.

Since Susanna Moodie's 19th century journal Roughing it in the Bush, Canadian fiction (well, English Canadian literature, I'm not familiar with French language fiction) has been fascinated with the natural world. Their stories tell us that Canada is defined by its environment, an idea also common among historians. From American Jackson Turner whose Frontier Thesis sought to explain American historical development to Canadian Harold Innis whose Staples Thesis tied Canadian progress to the evolving use of its natural resources. Both author and historian share stories that explore the effect of Canada's vast diverse landscape on its people. Alistair MacLeod is no different, though I find his work much more gripping than others.

Maybe it's because he came to speak to my Grade 12 creative writing class in high school. My teacher had gone to see him give a lecture the night before at the Peterborough Public Library and had invited him to come talk to his students the next morning. He came and I was somewhat awed that a famous author had come to our small classroom. One piece advice sticks out: If you're going to write something, he told us, write about it. If you're going to write about death, make sure everything in your story is about death. Now I appreciate consistent purpose in writing, especially in academic work and blog writing, but then I marvelled at the simple yet inspiring guidance. That afternoon my teacher called in sick and went to a bar with Alistair MacLeod. This seemed an incredible act to a shy kid who had never dreamed of skipping class.

Maybe it's his evocative writing of things I could never see and never experience. I am far and away from MacLeod's Scottish immigrant families that lived happy, hard lives as they arrived in the Maritimes to live in the new world. As a computer-using, middle-class, out-of-shape male academic, I discovered another life. The wavering vitality of his characters seemed unworldly from the comfort of a recliner in my living room. He wrote of coal miners and fishermen who lived only by virtue of the health of their fragile bodies. Every day they tested their strength and endurance and hoped to avoid serious injury. Once completely broken by their dangerous work, dead or alive, they would never be the same. Some characters fled that life while others embraced it. I wondered what I would do.

Maybe it's because I never own a copy of MacLeod's short stories or book for very long. I give it out to people and say, take this, I don't want it back. As a lover of overflowing bookshelves, I loan out books all the time, but only give out a select few. I have bought his books many times and beside me is his short story collection Island, which awaits a lucky new recipient, while his novel, No Great Mischief has yet to be replaced. I don't even know for sure if they read the book when I push it into their hands. Canadian literature is not everyone's cup of tea. I feel like I am putting the books out into the world to be discovered in garage sales and used book stores. Hoping that someone might one day be as engulfed in them as I was.

Maybe it's the tension in his stories between now and then. There was the modern world of cities, and books, and well-paying jobs used to buy big houses and there was the old world of songs, of hard work in mines and fishing boats, and close-knit families that didn't miss dinner for soccer practise every Tuesday. Today was haunted by yesterday, for better and for worse. The old and the young met often in MacLeod's stories. The past was never far away from the present. His characters could not escape its long reach across generations as parents and children made their lives in a changing world. I wondered: Was change inevitable and necessary? Or regrettable and unavoidable? Was it good? Was it bad? Somewhere in reading his books I became a historian.

Maybe it's because I can't quite pin down what aspect of his writing that entices me back to read his stories again and again. There is something mystical about unknown forces on our lives, whether it is the cascading impact of the decisions from long-forgotten ancestors' decisions or the urge to read the same book over and over. In the age of information overload, where we strive to know everything or at least know where to find it, the unexplainable becomes alluring. Am I hoping that one more reading will reveal its secrets? That some epiphany will make it all clear? Or do I come back because I know I won't find it and I can still be struck by a phrase tucked away halfway through a story I never liked before? Is it something I don't know or can't know? Perhaps you search through another author's work, but I will keep reading MacLeod's work looking for answers.

Another book I keep returning to is Tom King's The Truth About Stories. It was originally a CBC Massey lecture exploring the Indigenous experience in Canada. King gave his lectures through stories, about himself, about people he knew, about Canada. For Canada's Indigenous peoples, storytelling is an integral part of the interaction between individuals. It is not so different than the historian telling stories of the past, though it exists in a vastly different social, cultural and sometimes spiritual context. Every chapter is introduced with the same story, slightly changed as stories do, and he reminds his reader that the truth about stories is that's all we are. Every chapter ends with another varying reminder that is a fitting close to this strange sort of eulogy:

Read Alistair MacLeod's stories. They are yours. Do with them what you will. Give the book to someone else when you are done with it. Forget them. But don't say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had read his stories.

You've read them now.