Gerry B's Book Reviews

To Every Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story, by Alistair MacLeod

Bookshelf copy

A short story you’ll want to make part of your Christmas – 


to every thing - coverStory blurb: The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas. On Christmas Eve he arrives, to the delight of his young siblings, and shoes the horse before taking them by sleigh through the woods to the nearby church. The adults, including the narrator for the first time, sit up late to play the gift-wrapping role of Santa Claus.

The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow. Not a word is out of place. Matching and enhancing the text are black and white illustrations by Peter Rankin, making this book a perfect little gift.

Available in e-book – 287 KB, 48 pages.

to every thing - macleodAlistair MacLeod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and raised among an extended family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He has published two internationally acclaimed collections of short stories: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986). In 2000, these two books, accompanied by two new stories, were published in a single-volume edition entitled Island: The Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod. In 1999, MacLeod’s first novel, No Great Mischief, was published to great critical acclaim, and was on national bestseller lists for more than a year. The novel won many awards, including the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Alistair MacLeod and his wife, Anita, have six children. They live in Windsor, Ontario.

Peter Rankin was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He specializes in illustrating the traditional way of life there. A fisherman as well as an artist, in 2004 he illustrated Making Room, a children’s book by Joanne Taylor that was published by Tundra Books, for which he won the 2004 Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He lives in Mabou Coal Mines with his wife and their five children.


Review by Gerry Burnie

To those who might not be familiar with Cape Breton Island, here is a brief orientation via Wikipedia:

cCape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. The 10,311 km2 (3,981 sq mi) island accounts for 18.7% of the total area of Nova Scotia. Although physically separated from the Nova Scotia peninsula by the Strait of Canso, it is artificially connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the 1,385 m (4,544 ft) long rock-fill Canso Causeway. The island is located east-northeast of the mainland with its northern and western coasts fronting on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; its western coast also forming the eastern limits of the Northumberland Strait. The eastern and southern coasts front the Atlantic Ocean; its eastern coast also forming the western limits of the Cabot Strait.[1] Its landmass slopes upward from south to north, culminating in the highlands of its northern cape. One of the world’s larger salt water lakes, Bras d’Or (“Arm of Gold” in French), dominates the centre of the island.[2]

to every thing - landscapeTo Everything Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story, by Alistair MacLeod [McClelland & Stewart, 2012] harkens back to the 1940s, but like most rural communities, including the Ontario one in which I grew up, its roots go back to a much earlier time. Indeed, in Cape Breton, its roots go back to a time when:

“…the English set out to destroy the clans of Scotland, [and] the most independent of the Highlanders left their homes with the pipes playing laments on the decks of their ships. They crossed the ocean and the pipes played again when they waded ashore on the rocky coast of Cape Breton Island.”– Hugh Mclennan

In the 1940s, rural communities were predominantly ‘closed’ communities with a proud, self-sufficient way of life, i.e.

“Most of the families, if they did not live in the town or work in the mines, would have a small farm where cows and sheep and pigs and hens and a small garden provided a living. Things would be easier with the help of the wages of a husband or son who worked on the fishing boats or in the woods or, like young Neil in the story, on “the lake boats” in Ontario.”

to every thing there is a season - lobster treeThere were few indulgences, therefore, except for Hallowe’en and Christmas, and MacLeod—in his flawless and evocative style—has captured this anticipation in the voice of an eleven-year-old boy.

“We have been waiting now, it seems, forever. Actually, it has been most intense since Hallowe’en when the first snow fell upon us as we moved like muffled mummers upon darkened country roads.”

Indeed, this entire story is a collection of evocative memories, seemingly random at times, but always moving the story forward at the same time.

“The ocean is flat and calm and along the coast, in the scooped-out coves, has turned to an icy slush. The brook that flows past our house is almost totally frozen and there is only a small channel of rushing water that flows openly at its very centre. When we let the cattle out to drink, we chop holes with the axe at the brook’s edge so that they can drink without venturing onto the ice.

“The sheep move in and out of their lean-to shelter, restlessly stamping their feet or huddling together in tightly packed groups. A conspiracy of wool against the cold. The hens perch high on their roosts with their feathers fluffed out about them, hardly feeling it worthwhile to descend to the floor for their few scant kernels of grain. The pig, who has little time before his butchering,  squeals his displeasure to the cold and with his snout tosses his wooden trough high in the icy air. The splendid young horse paws the planking of his stall and gnaws the wooden cribwork of his manger.”

For those of us who grew up on a family farm, one can almost hear, feel and smell these scenes, and for those who didn’t it is a wonderful glimpse of a simpler way of life when people had time to notice such things.

And to put the topping on it, it is  illustrated throughout with the marvellous sketches of Peter Rankin—of the same Rankin clan as the world-renowned “Rankin Family” musicians.

This is a short story (only 47 pages long) that you will want to make part of your Christmas tradition. Five bees.


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Thanks for dropping by. At this time of year, may I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and much happiness and prosperity. Regards, Gerry B.

[1] Named in commemoration of explorer and navigator, John Cabot, who landed on the coast of Cape Breton Island in 1497.

[2] Bras d’Or Lake is where Alexander Graham Bell had his summer home at Baddeck. It is also where his design of a heavier-than-air-aircraft (the “Dart”) was the first to fly in the British Empire (which included Canada), in 1917. The pilot was J.A.D. McCurdy, who would later be named Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Nova Scotia).

December 17, 2012 - Posted by | Canadian author, Canadian content, fiction/autobiographical, non-GLBT

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