A Tribute to Alistair MacLeod

April 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

A Tribute to Alistair MacLeod


Alistair MacLeod will be laid to rest today—April 26, 2014. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 at Saint Margaret of Scotland Church, Broad Cove in Cape Breton with burial following in the parish cemetery. Here, on Peaks Island, Maine where I am writing this brief tribute on lined yellow paper with a ball-point pen—a tribute in itself to Alistair MacLeod—the day is misty and gray. Whatever the weather in Cape Breton, whatever the sun, or cloud or toss of sea on the shore when Alistair MacLeod is laid to rest, he would have seen it before and written of it better than anyone. He was a consummate writer. In my mind, the consummate writers’ writer as his own work illustrates and as lore has it—

“What? He doesn’t move on to the next sentence until he is satisfied with the previous one? No. It can’t be!”

“That’s why he doesn’t have to revise! No it can’t…..etc.”

But it seems it was true and having read his work over and over, I can’t find a stray hair in that amazingly unfussy prose.

But, that is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about a question Alistair MacLeod asked me once and my surprised but simple answer—an answer that contained its own continuing lesson. At the time the question was asked, I was living in San Francisco during an important but troubled period of my life. I had been reading his short stories collected in the newly published book, Island, and had learned that he was giving a reading at Clean Well Lighted Place, a popular bookstore in San Francisco. I was going to the reading that afternoon and also wanted to have my book signed. That morning in the sunny kitchen where I sat reading, one of his stories had moved me to tears. His stories were and are raw and lyric and true and I knew the kinds of people, their land and sea and work that he wrote of and no one to my mind had told their story as well.

It was an amiable, if small, group at the reading that afternoon—maybe 25-30 people—many with books already in hand to be signed. We applauded when the author was introduced. He looked like the photo on the book jacket, which to me said something right there and was wearing a tweed jacket and had a slight burr to his voice. He apologized for having a bit of a cold. He had selected a story to read but stood holding the book at his side and began by reciting from memory the story’s opening paragraph. I don’t know how others felt at that moment but writing about this now, some thirteen years later, I remember being taken immediately to that place, that sea, those people and when he did open the book and resume the reading, the image of him simply standing there and telling us the story remains a deep impress.

After the formal reading, I joined the line of people wishing their books signed. He chatted with each person. It did not seemed rushed as many of these affairs are and when it came my turn, I put my book before him and said that I spent my summers in our family home in Pubnico, Nova Scotia. He said that he knew the Pubnicos and that they drove through them every summer on their way to Cape Breton and, of course, I immediately felt a kinship. I knew that road and all that it entailed. I told him I loved his work and that just that morning had been reading one of his stories that had made me cry. He looked at me and smiled, saying, “Well and that’s not a bad thing is it now, Lassie?” And I, who often prevaricate when asked a question, immediately said, “No, it’s not,” surprised equally by the question and by how swiftly, definitively and truly the answer came. He signed my book and I have it here with me. This summer it will return to Nova Scotia as well as his novel, No Great Mischief, and I will again read Alistair MacLeod’s words. They will give me great joy and they will deeply grieve me. They will do what great literature is meant to do and that’s not a bad thing, is it? It may even be redemptive.

Rest in Peace, Alistair MacLeod.


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