Alistair MacLeod,
The Lost Salt Gift of Blood
(McClelland & Stewart,
1976; reprinted 2001)

Last year, Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief won the IMPAC award (the richest prize in literature), as well as a host of other awards. Fans of his short stories were not one bit surprised; they had been waiting for several years with mouthwatering anticipation for this novel. For anyone who missed out on reading these wonderful pieces the first time round, McClelland & Stewart has reprinted the two volumes of short stories that first made for MacLeod a quiet reputation among those who love fine writing.

The short stories in this collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are hauntingly lovely and heartbreakingly true. Set in his native Cape Breton, they examine in detail the relationships within families and communities, between the past and the present, and most of all, the ways in which the past lives in the present, because it is in each of us.

Life, for the inhabitants of MacLeod’s Cape Breton, is a constant struggle against the elements, and against fate. However, the stories escape the bleakness of, say, D.H. Lawrence because of the pride and endurance these people possess, and their sense of themselves as part of a long and worthy history.

MacLeod’s prose is very much a product of the storytelling tradition; the bardic musicality of it resonates long after the covers of the book are closed. But there is no Celtic twilight here, these stories are keenly observed and meticulously drawn.

There are seven longish stories in the collection, and all but one are told in the first person and the present tense. MacLeod is a master at grabbing our attention, with beginnings like:

"'We’ll just have to sell him,' I remember my mother saying with finality," from "In the Fall," a young boy’s first encounter with the grim realities of life and death and sacrifice.

"At midnight he looked up at the neon Coca-Cola clock and realized with a taut emptiness that he had already stayed too late and perhaps was even now forever lost," from "The Golden Gift of Grey," the only story not set in Cape Breton, but rather in the curiously kindred world of expatriate Appalachians.

"There are times even now, when I awake at four o’clock in the morning with a terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs," from "The Boat," probably the best (and certainly the most anthologized) story in this volume.

There are many beautiful and vivid descriptions of the land and sea that shape these characters. Indeed the land and sea themselves are as constant a presence in the stories as they are in the lives of the people who live there. MacLeod’s stories are an attempt to understand what makes them what they are. In this he succeeds brilliantly, and this is what give these stories their broad and lasting appeal.

[ by Joyce Rankin ]
Rambles: 16 March 2002