Sunday, January 20, 2013

Alistair MacLeod – Bard of Cape Breton

Recently I’ve been considering my decision to write about history and literature on this blog. Is there any relationship between those two? Or did I just throw them together like green eggs and ham? Over the past two months, I’ve been reading an author who has helped me to realize how both history and literature feed into and enrich one another.

Alistair MacLeod was born in 1936 and grew up on Cape Breton Island. I discovered him at the recommendation of a friend, and have thoroughly enjoyed his writing from the start. The great thing is that, unlike Charles Dickens, you can reasonably set out to read all of his published work. All you need are two books: Island (1999), his collected volume of short stories, and No Great Mischief (2002), his novel.

 As I said, MacLeod has helped me to think about the relationship between history and literature. In stories we have, as Northrop Frye said, an “imaginative key to history” (76). For example, No Great Mischief traces the family history of Calum Ruadh, the Abraham-type patriarch who emigrated from Scotland in 1779. In a history textbook, you might read that “nearly 40,000 Scots arrived in Nova Scotia between 1785 and 1849” (Conrad 240). In the novel, however, you get to read about the experience of one man, widowed on the crossing, and his effort to establish a new life in Cape Breton Island with his twelve children. The story brings life and emotion and compassion to compliment the historical facts.

In Island, MacLeod’s short stories centre on the family life of Cape Breton. The fathers are miners, farmers, fishermen, and loggers who take pride in the dignity of physical work. Again, you could read in a textbook that “Cape Breton's economy faces significant challenges with unemployment and out-migration” (Wiki). But what you have in Island is the story of a young man fed up with his futureless life in small town C.B., who leaves home to “kick the dust off his shoes” and yet discovers new-found respect for his father and grandfather even as he travels away (The Vastness of the Dark). In another story, a miner wrestles with his alienation from his wife and children as he prepares to leave Cape Breton to work in the mines of South Africa (The Closing Down of Summer). Again, as Northrop Frye says, stories “tell us things about human life that we don’t get in any other way” (77).

This Group of Seven painting illustrates the typical setting of a MacLeod story. (1)
I want to know the Canadian experience. I want to understand its regions, and appreciate the character of their inhabitants. I want to see their strength and feel for their trials. If we are to have any hope of progress to that end, we need both history and literature. History tells us what happened, and literature fills it with life.

Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination.
Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel, History of the Canadian Peoples: Beginnings to 1867. 
(1) Painting: Jackknife Village by Franklin Carmichael

No comments:

Post a Comment