Wednesday, 30 April 2014

My Personal Tribute to Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod
      My "relationship" with Alistair MacLeod began in 1978 when, upon my graduation from Acadia University,  I received his book of short stories, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, as a graduation gift from my cousin Betsy.   This book, consisting of seven short stories, was published in 1976 so I guess I was early in my discovery of this man's writing.  Although I had just completed a BA in English in a Maritime university, I do not remember encountering Alistair MacLeod in my studies. 

My Graduation Gift
Loving Inscription
     Nova Scotia writer, Ernest Buckler received an honorary degree the day I graduated from Acadia, so, for a moment as I was handed my degree, I shared the stage with a great Canadian author.  I was quietly thrilled about that because I was a fan of Ernest Buckler and I had studied The Mountain and the Valley in the course of my studies. 
Ernest Buckler
     I am sure, given my own background, it is not just a coincidence that I was drawn to the stories of both these men who wrote of strong Maritime families with strong rural roots.

Alistair MacLeod
     Over the years since I discovered Alistair, I have come to love and admire his writing.  If I have done my math correctly, it has been 36 years since my first encounter with him.  Often described as "a novelist in no hurry", it has not been a race to keep up with his output.  His total works consist of fewer than two dozen short stories and one novel.  It is said that he took 13 years to complete No Great Mischief and that it had to pried from his hands.  He is certainly a writer of "quality" not quantity!


"The Boat"
     Alistair MacLeod's short story, "The Boat" was in the grade 11 English anthology, Echoes, in my teaching years.  The story is about the conflicting expectations parents have for their son who is the main character and narrator.  I always taught that story with Alden Nowlan's poem "Warren Pryor" which offers another perspective on parental expectations and sons.
     One year when I was teaching that story and poem, Alistair MacLeod just happened to be coming to UNB to do a reading.  I was so excited to tell my students that he would be there on a Monday evening and they could all go for free to see him.  I coordinated the study of the story and poem to coincide with the date of his appearance. 
     In "The Boat", the father dies in an apparent fishing accident.  However, it is not clear as to whether the death was an accident or suicide.  We spent a lot of time in class discussing the possibilities but we reached no final conclusion.  Finally I told my students that they could ask that question when they all crowded into Memorial Hall to see Alistair MacLeod on the approaching Monday night.  I assured them I would be there and would save them all seats.  I even suggested they could bring their textbooks and we could get autographs.  Alas, not one student showed up!  There I was alone, with several empty chairs around me.
     Although I was a little disappointed, I settled in to watch and listen to Alistair.  When  the time came for audience questions, I did not have the guts to ask the burning question---accident or suicide.  However, when the formal part of the evening was over, and he was signing autographs of the books he had for sale, I lined up with my Grade 11 English anthology, Echoes, and my 1976 edition of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. 

Treasured Autograph
     Alistair was quite impressed that I had a first edition of his book.  He said that would probably be worth some money on ebay now that it was autographed.  I knew then that Alistair and I had made a Scottish connection over money!  Feeling such tight kinship, I conjured up the courage to explain the grade 11 class discussion over the father's death in "The Boat".  I bluntly said to Alistair MacLeod, "Was it an accident, or did the father commit suicide?"  He looked up at me from under his bushy eyebrows, and with sort of a smile, he said, "I don't know."  The perfect answer. 

The Tarragon Theatre:   
     In October 2012, I attended a stage adaptation of No Great Mischief at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.  Although the production did not get rave reviews, I was excited to see the theatrical interpretation of this great book.  All but one of the six women in our group had read and loved the book.  There I sat with my daughter, my aunt, my cousin, my niece, and my second cousin watching a story about a Maritime family bound together with Scottish roots, family ties, and common history.   Our own little clan in Row 14.
R.H. Thompson as Alexander MacDonald and David Fox as Calum MacDonald
The Frye Festival: 
     The last time I saw Alistair MacLeod in person was just one year ago  when he was interviewed at the 2013 Frye Festival in Moncton by Michael Enright, host of CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition.  Alistair spoke about death, geography, scribblers and ballpoint pens, and the great Canadian novel among other things.  He disclosed that he did not own a computer, a cellphone or an I pad.  As usual, his kindness, generosity, intelligence and sense of humour was evident in his talk and demeanour.  You can hear that interview at the following link.   Michael Enright Interview with Alistair MacLeod at the 2013 Frye Festival
Michael Enright
Kindness Indeed:  
     Since Alistair MacLeod's death on April 13th, there have been many tributes and remembrances.  The most touching memory I heard was related by Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC Radio's The Next Chapter.   She spoke of a time when she was on a long-term absence from work due to what she termed as a nervous breakdown.  Alistair had won a prestigious American literary award and part of the prize was a public interview.  Alistair was allowed to choose the interviewer and he chose Shelagh.  When he phoned and asked her to do the interview, she responded that she would love to but did not know if she would be able; she had lost confidence.  Alistair said, "Oh, I think we should give it a try."  The interview was a success and Shelagh says, "He helped me back on my feet.  I'll never forget his kindness."
     You can hear more of Shelagh's memories at the following link:  Shelagh Rogers Remembers Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod and Shelagh Rogers

My Personal Favourites:
     Although I hesitate to play favourites, I do identify Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro as my favourite Canadian authors.  These two short story masters just happen to have the same initials--A.M.  And here they are together at the 2002 Scottish Studies Society Tartan Day where Alistair was named Scot of the Year. 
Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod

Memorable quotes from Alistair MacLeod:
"All of us are better when we're loved."

"No one has ever said that life is to be easy. Only that it is to be lived."

"Living in the past is not living up to our potential."

"And then there came into my heart a very great love for my father and I thought it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations."

So long, Alistair.....


  1. Wonderful tribute to a great man and a great author. His legacy as a husband,father, grandfather, teacher and genuine gentleman shows in the writing he left behind.

  2. A very personal and lovely tribute to a great writer and a kind, thoughtful man. I'm sure he would have been pleased.

  3. I am so impressed by your literary knowledge--not joking here by the way. He would enjoy your tribute to his Scottish frugalness.

  4. Thank you Mary, Hayley and Sioux! I am now re-reading my valuable copy of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.

  5. Wonderful post Barb and I am so thrilled that I was brilliant enough to share that wonderful book with you! What a treasure we can savour for a lifetime - that Alistair MacLeod. Thank you. Betsy