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June 8, 2014

A Great Loss - Alistair MacLeod July 20, 1936-April 20, 2014

Judith Maclean Miller

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Alistair MacLeod's name is not a household word everywhere in Canada, but he is one of Canada's great writers. There are many reasons why I grieve over the passing of this man.

MacLeod was a meticulous craftsman.  He once said ruefully that he took as long to write a sentence as most people take to write a novel.  Each word was carefully chosen and placed, to create a lilting rhythm reminiscent of the cadence of Scots Gaelic which was spoken in his childhood home in Cape Breton.

The short story, “Tuning of Perfection,” seems to me a key to MacLeod’s work.  Its main character, Archibald, cares about and preserves the authenticity of the long Gaelic songs, and he builds his woodpile in much the way MacLeod wrote, placing each log precisely, “working at it in determined perfection.”

Alistair MacLeod chose to write about the people of Cape Breton, the descendants of Scots, mostly from the Hebrides, who were displaced by greedy landowners wanting to raise sheep on their land. MacLeod’s voice, reading aloud, was like my father’s and his brothers’.  In exile, these people built lives, families and a culture, passing on stories from one generation to another.  

MacLeod honours these stories, tracing their complexity and sharing the dignity of these people, especially men who spoke little about their lives.  Writing their sacrifices, their quiet heroism, MacLeod gives us deep insight into them.  This telling of the tales of his people places MacLeod firmly in the tradition of the bard--the poet who speaks for and to the voiceless.

While MacLeod’s voice is bardic, its tone is elegaic.  He knew that these ways of life are passing, that these stories and language are close to disappearing.

The structures of MacLeod’s writing are intricate.  The conclusion of “Vision,” about small boys exploring their world, seems a description of a MacLeod short story:

And when the wet ropes of the lobster traps came out of the sea, we would pick out a single strand and then try to identify it some few feet farther on.  It was difficult to do because of the twisting and turning of the different strands within the rope, difficult ever to be certain in our judgements or to fully see or understand.  Difficult then to see and understand the twisted strands within the rope. And forever difficult to see and understand the tangled twisted strands of love.

Although these are the stories of Cape Bretoners, they resonate into working people’s lives everywhere.  Their close focus on the particular makes them universal.  Two modest volumes, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the S n (1986), are gathered into Island; the Collected Stories (2000).  MacLeod’s one novel, No Great Mischief (1999), won the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

A generous friend and colleague, fiercely proud of his family and his heritage, a master craftsman, Alistair MacLeod was a great gift to us all. He will be missed.  I am grateful that he leaves us the treasure of his work.

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