Island: The Collected Stories

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9780864923912: Island: The Collected Stories
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Alistair MacLeod’s stories focus on the hard lives of Cape Breton fishermen, miners, farmers, and their families, and on the struggles of those who have left in body yet cannot leave in spirit. MacLeod gained a worldwide audience and the esteem of critics on the basis of only fourteen stories published in two books, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. Over the years, many of these stories have been read or dramatized on the CBC. When Island: The Collected Stories was published, lovers of his work rejoiced to have all of them so readily available. Now, the BTC Audiobooks edition of Island makes many of these wonderful stories available in a unique audiobook anthology. Familiar Canadian actors Gordon Pinsent, Frank Perry, Les Carlson, Cliff LeJeune, and Joseph Rutten narrate and act in selections including MacLeod’s very first story, The Boat, the poignant Christmas memoir, To Everything There Is a Season; the poignant The Return; the haunting family legend As Birds Bring Forth the Sun; and the acclaimed The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.

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"Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea." So begins "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," a 1985 entry from Island. The story continues, "And the man had a dog of which he was very fond." And there you have the basic elements of an Alistair MacLeod story: dog, family, and sea. The author--whose 2000 novel No Great Mischief won him a measure of long-overdue acclaim--shuffles these elements into a surprisingly infinite variety of configurations, always with the same precise, confident, quiet language.

His big theme is the abandonment of the rural. Though his characters live in the fishing communities of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the seaside isn't a place where they dwell contentedly. In half the stories, young men and boys feel a pull toward academe and the center of the country. In the other half, academically successful middle-aged men return to the wild eastern coast of Canada to try to reclaim the life they left behind. Both dilemmas are impossible to resolve--no one can be both a city mouse and a country mouse--and MacLeod wisely doesn't offer easy solutions.

What makes the writing sing, though, is the specificity of his descriptions of rural life. He tells you exactly how things work: "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 people here are ultimately defined by the physical world, and MacLeod has a farmer's visceral feel for geography. As he writes in "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood": "Even farther out, somewhere beyond Cape Spear lies Dublin and the Irish coast; far away but still the nearest land, and closer now than is Toronto or Detroit, to say nothing of North America's more western cities; seeming almost hazily visible now in imagination's mist." This is regional fiction in the best sense: it belongs to one perfectly evoked place. --Claire Dederer

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