Maple Leaf Rag
Three Short-Story Writers Explore the Lonely Heart of Canadian Lit
American readers are a selfish group. In a kind of cultural colonialism, we claim the literary territory of others for our own. Anyone writing in English--whether European or North American--is swept into the U.S. canon once he or she hits the best-seller lists. This is especially true of Canadian writers such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munro, all of whom are widely read in this country. Their popularity (and our subsequent adoption of their work) might be due to these authors' setting their fiction in a land nearly indistinguishable from our own or, as in the case of Ondaatje's The English Patient and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, setting their tales in a manifestly exotic or alien environment, neither clearly Canadian nor American.
But several scribes assert themselves as Canadian writers. They explore their country's history, celebrate the landscape. Without submitting to rank regionalism or forging a shared voice, they are carving a distinct niche for Canada among world literatures. Three short-story collections--two recent anthologies and one that has stood the test of time--demonstrate the integrity of the work occupying this niche, which is as varied as the climate of the North Country itself.
Published in February, Alistair MacLeod's Island: The Complete Stories represents more than 30 years of work by one of Canada's greatest writers, who is virtually unknown in the States. Although he published a novel, No Great Mischief, last year, MacLeod has focused the bulk of his career on the undervalued medium of the short story. As a result, his works are as near to perfect as the compact form can be, the purest distillation of theme and character into an economic and breathtaking piece of literature.
Most of MacLeod's stories are set on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, an anomalous and remote settlement off the eastern coast of Canada. For four centuries, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton have been home to the Gaelic-speaking descendants of Scots who fled religious and economic oppression for the promise of open land and cultural autonomy across the North Atlantic. Cape Breton's harsh climate is not altogether different from that of Scotland--immigrants lived as they had in the old country, fishing the rough seas and farming the often-snowbound land. It's an insular life built around the inevitable cycle of birth and death of animals and the land.
MacLeod renders this cycle riveting. In the confined environment of Cape Breton, where there are at most a handful of family names, connections between family members are highly charged. The relationships between people and animals can be just as significant. In "Second Spring," a young boy is initiated into the ferocious rituals of animal mating when he decides to vie for a spot in the "calf club" at school. In "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," a family is haunted by the legacy of a big gray dog beloved by the gentle family patriarch, whose violent and startling death the dog causes. In "Clearances," an elderly man faces the burden of his fate in the company of his faithful dog.
The earliest work in the collection, a 1968 story called "The Boat," is also one of the finest. In deft narrative strokes, MacLeod conveys intensity of character: The narrator, a Midwestern university professor, recalls the quiet battle of wills between his mother, a pragmatic, "powerfully energetic" woman, and his father, a reluctant and bookish lobsterman. The battleground is the family house, where the mother's spotless housekeeping brushes against the chaotic, book-infested territory of the father's room, into which each of the narrator's six sisters inevitably disappear, finding literature and losing interest in the feminine crafts of baking bread and sewing. One by one, each sister leaves the island for the modern promise of Toronto or Montreal. When the narrator follows his sisters' path, choosing "useless books over the parents who gave him life," as his mother puts it, he finds himself wishing "that the two things I loved so dearly did not exclude each other in a manner that was so blunt and too clear." This is as true of his parents as it is of his livelihood.
Although MacLeod's subject matter can be grim, it is not stark. His writing displays a dry humor and an intelligent take on the inherent solitude of humans. Never hokey or romanticized, his Cape Breton stories are as brilliantly complex and uniquely Canadian as the island's rugged landscape, at once troubling and rewarding to read.
D.R. MacDonald, whose stories are collected in 1988's Eyestone, also writes about Cape Breton--his latest novel is titled Cape Breton Road. Though his stories sometimes lack the immediacy of MacLeod's, they are nonetheless beautifully wrought examinations of the lonely dynamic of men, women, and drink, spooled out against the alien panorama of the island. MacDonald sharply captures the personality of the land and sea, and his stories reflect the air of faint menace that lingers over the isolated landscape.
Eyestone is marked by a sense of life having passed one by. MacDonald describes one character as having eyes that seem "tired of sight." In "The Flowers of Bermuda," a man who has never fully recovered from the accidental death of his only son finds solace in a friendship with a new minister on the island. When he learns the minister has met with calamity during a trip to the old country, the man is stricken with disbelief, then anger. He finally reacts by steering his fishing boat into stormy seas. The protagonist of "Work" misses the opportunity to say goodbye to his only friend, a rum-soaked surrogate brother bound for a mainland nursing home. In response, he hitchhikes to an abandoned quarry and begins to split rocks, seeking a use for himself beyond the crutch he once provided for his drunk and ailing friend.
MacDonald's stories share a disorienting timelessness. The ancient way of life among the Cape Bretoners conspires against a firm grasp of the period in which these tales take place. Save for an occasional television or engine-powered boat, MacDonald could be writing about the 19th or even 18th century. The final story in the collection, "Sailing," is firmly set in the late 20th century, yet most of the action takes place in a distant time and far-off place. In a way, MacDonald writes fairy tales, complete with monsters and morals.
Carol Shields also writes fairy tales. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a much-heralded novel, The Stone Diaries, Shields was born in the United States but has lived most of her adult life in various Canadian cities. Her Dressing Up for the Carnival is a collection of stories published last year. Each of these small, quirky, and highly readable pieces deals in some way with the parameters of reality while exploring the internal landscape of her characters' minds.
In the collection, the impossible becomes inconveniently real and the whimsical acquires gravitas. In "Weather," a strike by the nation's meteorologists causes a cessation of weather itself. In "Stop!," a queen, stricken by an unknowable malady, is diagnosed as allergic to time itself. In "Windows," a painter couple find themselves and their work compromised by a tax on windows and the ensuing absence of natural light in their home.
Like those of MacDonald and MacLeod, Shields' characters are often people with unrealized lives: married couples who are connected to each other only by an "inviolate code of intimacy"; women who long to die for love; people who, in their yearning for escape, can convince themselves the Romans might have built an arena in Manitoba.
But Shields has a wide and often wonderful comic streak, coupled with an unwavering commitment to literary experimentalism. She writes an entire story without using the letter "i," for instance. She explores the effect marriage to a prominent nudist might have on a modest and highly self-conscious woman. Some of Shields' works serve as imaginative emotional investigation, while others come across as too precious, as in "Ilk," a story told from the oppressively metaphoric perspective of an expert on narrative form and "the fictive module." But Shields never loses the capacity to intrigue.
The ability of MacDonald, MacLeod, and Shields to at once disturb and enchant the reader is wholly dependent on their bravery as writers. Instead of pursuing an American ideal of larger-than-life characters and material success, these authors toil in service to their land and language. Perhaps that's the Canadian literary aesthetic. In a publishing industry dominated by blockbusters about American military operatives and hotshot lawyers, these Canadians commit a welcome act of literary defiance.