This is MacLeod’s first novel, published 13 years ago, when he was 62. A writer and long-time teacher, he uses his childhood and young adult experiences in Nova Scotia to craft his fiction. Familiar with the land and the sea, knowing the lives of fishermen and miners, his novel and short story collections present people whose lives are bound to the natural world and to their family history.
The narrator of the story, Alexander, lived and was brought up on Cape Breton, an island in Nova Scotia which was settled by many French and Scottish people. The narrator’s family is a Scottish clan, from the northern highlands of Scotland. These are the people who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie against England, and who later were cleared off their land so that sheep could be raised there. In the book, Calum MacDonald, Alexander’s ancestor, emigrates in the late 1700’s to Canada. One of the great stories in the book is about their faithful family dog trying to swim after their boat as they are embarking from Scotland. And how Calum first inveighs against the dog, swearing at her to go back. When she persists, he starts to call encouragement, realizing she will drown if she cannot reach them. Stories and moments like these are what make up the book, about being faithful, and not giving up. MacLeod is not reaching for sentiment – he simply lets you hear the telling, and the retelling.
The book is made up of a series of flashbacks that follow his ancestor Calum’s story and tell us his own upbringing. Visiting his older brother who is a down and out alcoholic living in a seedy Toronto rooming house, Alexander has occasion to remember their childhood and early adulthood. We also catch glimpses of visits with his sister in her present life as the wife of a mining executive, living in affluence in western Canada, far from the robust and natural childhood they experienced on Cape Breton.
A lot of the book is about nostalgia and the good old days. Except in the good old days, people died or were drowned, or went to prison like his older brother, who killed a man in a miners’ brawl. When British General Wolfe’s army scaled the cliff in Quebec to defeat the French, back in 1759, Scottish Highlanders led the treacherous ascent. Wolfe mistrusted them (they had fought on opposite sides in Scotland) and wrote in a letter that if they were lost, it would be “no great mischief”.
These kinds of stark details run like a thread in the narratives. The dog was saved from drowning, but Calum’s wife died at sea. Highlanders were hardy and bold, but their lives could hang by a thread, if they trusted generals or armies or mining companies. There always seems to be a price to pay, and in the end Alexander values his brother Calum just for what he was and what he stands for. Like the sweetness of the spring water spilling out in the salty tide submerging it, there is goodness, but it can’t be held. The most that MacLeod has said about the book is that his characters are not regretting the past - they are only being thoughtful about it.
He leaves it to us, his readers, to realize afresh that this life of the wind and the water and the field is gone for most of us, and will never return. As the writer E.M. Forster put it, seeing the growth of the suburbs around London at the start of this century, “What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?” What good indeed.