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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Kristin Nord and Julia Sneden

In this issue:


FAVORITE AUTHORS: Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian whose work is rooted in the life of Cape Breton Island is a favorite writer of Kristin Nord's. Now his stories are introduced to US readers in an anthology called "Island: The Complete Stories."

BOOKS: The prolific Joyce Carol Oates creates another family, "We Were The Mulvaneys," and we are carried along, as it tries to cope with devasting problems. Julia Sneden reviews the novel, now in paperback.


"Galileo's Daughter, " the letters from Suor (Sister) Maria Celeste, a nun confined to her convent, to her father, Galileo Galilei, give us a window to the customs and events of the seventeenth century.

Jacquie Kennedy's glamour and style are on display in a Met Costume Institute show that reveals a woman very much in control of her image.


Favorite Authors: Allistair MacLeod

by Kristin Nord

Over the last eight years or so, Ive taken it upon myself to introduce as many passionate readers as I know to the writing of Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian whose work is rooted in the life of Cape Breton Island. Until last year this work has consisted of just two slim collections of short stories.

This winter W.W. Norton & Company has introduced his stories to the United States in an anthology that it calls "Island: The Complete Stories." It was first published as "Island: The Collected Short Stories of Alistair MacLeod, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2000. The anthology contains all the stories that appeared in the two Canadian collections, and two new ones.

I return to these stories each summer when I am on the island, often sitting on a beach that once was part of MacLeods family farm. I bought my first paperback collections at a gift shop just a few miles from the clifftop cabin where MacLeod writes in the summertime, and on a later occasion found that the young womanwaiting on me behind the counter was his daughter.

At readings he appears to be a shy man with delicate hands and an unimposing physical stature, though once he is up at the podium he is soon breathing life into stories of unexpected power. His mission has been to evoke the world of broad-shouldered, large-handed men of his heritage --- Scots Catholic Gaelic-speaking men and their families. This is a fecund and physical world, where the men the men are farmers, miners, fishermen and loggers who bear scars and twisted fingers as trees bare rings that tell their age. They are married to women youd see at the family dances on the rocky Cape Breton coast on a Friday night, who appear fiercely proud and independent . Their children are dark- or copper-haired with light blue eyes --youd see them in the pipers circle at the Highland Games in Antigonish in July.

Storytelling, music and dance have been at the heart of this once predominantly Gaelic-speaking world, and these tools have remained as powerful antidotes to the poverty and tragedy that islanders have encountered. MacLeods stories are dark, and often begin as if the speaker were bathed in candlelight, reeling us in for an evenings yarn. For instance, here is the voice of a mother, announcing matter-of-factly, well just have to sell him, in The Fall, a story in which that main character must choose between feeding her family and maintaining the mining pony who has faithfully served her husband. Or consider the opening lines in The Boat, an achingly beautiful story about a son who loses his father to the sea: There are times even now, when I awake at four oclock in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs...

This is also an exquisitely rendered natural world: Now in the early evening the sun is flashing everything in gold. It bathes the blunt grey rocks that loom yearningly out toward Europe and it touches upon the stunted spruce and the low-lying lichens and the delicate hardy ferns and the ganglia-rooted moss and the tiny tough rock cranberries, and: Overhead the ivory white gulls wheel and cry, flashing also in the purity of the sun and the clean, freshly washed air... The beauty of such a world, when matched by the often grim realities of making an island living, fills the lives of these families with often heart-wrenching choices. Should the oldest of the family leave the island on the day of his 18th birthday, in search of a future but all too aware that he may be saying good-bye foreever to his aging grandparents and lung-scarred mining father? Is it right that the grown children, long gone to the cities of Toronto and Vancouver, should return each summer in a fevered attempt to convince their aging mother, who raised them for most of their lives single-handedly, to give up her farm?

These stories also look deeply at the role of tradition within these tight enclaves and at the price that has been exacted as recent generations of Cape Bretoners have sought to better their lots and venture into the wider world. Like so many real Cape Bretoners, MacLeods characters have increasingly been forced off-island in search of gainful employment, all the while never quite reconciling themselves to the sense of displacement they feel. They have gone to university and distanced themselves from the harsh lives of their parents, but remain haunted, missing the island and its music and dance. They listen to old fiddle records, as the lawyer in "The Return" does, when his Montreal-born and bred wife is away.

MacLeods families are unsentimental about such choices, though his narrators do not shy away from the pain these moral dilemmas provoke. His work does not offer answers to ongoing threats to authentic Gaelic culture, whether they be attempts to commercialize the islands music or to acquire yet another farm for its oceanfront. The islands major industries have failed and been replaced by a dispiriting mix of tourism and welfare, but he would have us remember the islanders who remain at the end of summer.

MacLeod himself, who has taught creative writing and 19th century literature for many years at the University of Windsor, is among those who have left but return to their extended families in the summers. Over 33 years MacLeod has published 16 short stories and after 13 years in the making, No Great Mischief, his first novel, was published to acclaim last year. It was recently listed as a finalist for the prestigious Dublin Impac Literary Award, a prize that will be announced in May.

At the same time, Island has swiftly amassed an enthusiastic following in this country, making both the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe best seller lists. Joyce Carol Oates has compared MacLeods work to James Joyces Dubliners and Winslow Homers watercolors of the people and seascapes of Prouts Neck, Maine, and Cullercoats, England. No wonder.These are searing and poetic works will leave you in awe of this writers breadth of thought and emotion.


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