Gerry B's Book Reviews

Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

This review is in commemoration of Alistair MacLeod (July 20, 1936 – April 20, 2014), the “bard of Cape Breton,” whose voice has been silenced in life, but his meticulously crafted stories will live on as long as people enjoy outstanding literature.


Island - allistair mcleod

“The genius of his stories is to render his fictional world as timeless.” —Colm Tóibín




island - coverA thumbnail synopsis:  The sixteen exquisitely crafted stories in Island prove Alistair MacLeod to be a master. Quietly, precisely, he has created a body of work that is among the greatest to appear in English in the last fifty years.

A book-besotted patriarch releases his only son from the obligations of the sea. A father provokes his young son to violence when he reluctantly sells the family horse. A passionate girl who grows up on a nearly deserted island turns into an ever-wistful woman when her one true love is felled by a logging accident. A dying young man listens to his grandmother play the old Gaelic songs on her ancient violin as they both fend off the inevitable. The events that propel MacLeod’s stories convince us of the importance of tradition, the beauty of the landscape, and the necessity of memory.



Alistair MacLeod reciving the Order of Canada from Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean, 27th Governor General of Canada.

Alistair MacLeod reciving the Order of Canada from Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean, 27th Governor General of Canada.

About the author: When MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Dunvegan, Inverness County on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. After completing high school, MacLeod attended teacher’s college in Truro and then taught school. He studied at St. Francis Xavier University between 1957 and 1960 and graduated with a BA and B.Ed. He then went on to receive his MA in 1961 from the University of New Brunswick and his PhD in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame. A specialist in British literature of the nineteenth century, MacLeod taught English for three years at Indiana University before accepting a post in 1969 at the University of Windsor as professor of English and creative writing. During the summer, his family resided in Cape Breton, where he spent part of his time “writing in a cliff-top cabin looking west towards Prince Edward Island.” ~ Wikipedia


Review by Gerry Burnie

There are only two ways one can go with a review of Alistair MacLeod’s works, i.e. short or long. While not a prolific writer—his one novel, “No Great Mischief” is his only lengthy work—his sixteen short stories, ranging from 1968 to 1999, are nuggets of the writer’s craft. Brought together in a single collection with a simple, but oh-so-appropriate-name of Island: The Complete Stories [Emblem Editions, December 3, 2010] they represent his evolution from an academic style of writing—i.e. tight, and word-perfect—to a more open form without loosing any of the precision.

I think what stands out about Macleod’s stories is the indisputable fact that he understood his characters. The same thing applies to his beloved Cape Breton setting, which is a continuing theme in all his stories, and which both challenges and shapes the people who cling to it.

Nonetheless, set against this rugged background is a quiet sort of love (of both people and loyal animals) that prevails in spite of the challenges. Like the wife who keeps an anxious vigil for her overdue husband until the trees seem to take on human forms to move in her direction.

There are also tales of family, like the miner who laments that his sons will probably leave the island to pursue an easier life ‘down the road’, and of the pull of ancestry versus fading memories and evolving attitudes.

There is something for everyone in the collected works of Alistair MacLeod, but most of all it is a celebration of excellence in short story genre. Five bees.


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 Interested in Canadian history? Want to know more? Then visit my new page:  In Praise of Canadian History.

 It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post:  The Family Compact of Upper Canada: Democracy has never come easily …


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April 28, 2014 - Posted by | Canadian content, Canadian Irish tradition, Fiction, non GBLT, Nova Scotia Setting

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