by Mike Morrison
There exist certain writers whose work can be said to be representative, even typical of one area or another. These writers tend to relate certain feelings and events which seem somehow familiar and welcome to the people of the area. At times some of these types of writers go beyond being a simple representative and are able to use a great deal of imagination in order to combine elements of local folklore and tradition with creative fiction to present a monument to local events which is also a thoroughly enjoyable read. One such writer is Alistair MacLeod. In his second book of short stories titled As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, MacLeod sets up situations that, although almost fantastic at times, can easily be pictured in any Cape Breton community. In “The Closing Down of Summer”, the preciousness of Summer and the relaxation of vacation time is haunted by the reliance on seasonal work and its impending approach, a familiar theme for many families on the island. “To Everything There is a Season” chronicles the life of a family who get to spend only a short holiday with the eldest son who has travelled westward to find work. In “The Tuning Of Perfection”, Mr. MacLeod seems to reflect on the importance of music to Cape Bretoners. In each of the seven stories in this collection, MacLeod brings out elements of life on the shore of the Atlantic and weaves a reflective story around the ways in which these elements affect his characters.
An interesting aspect of Alistair MacLeod’s writing is his use of memory. Many of his stories are told through the eyes of a narrator who is recollecting a time in his life that has come to pass. “I am speaking here of a time when I was eleven and lived with my family on our small farm on the west coast of Cape Breton,” begins “To Everything There is a Season”. In “Winter Dog”, the narrator sees his children playing with a dog and slips into the memory of a dog who was his friend when he himself was a child. In each case of memory and recollection, there is an element of relationship between the past and the present. These stories themselves often rely on some event which sparks the memory of the narrator and it is the memory itself which becomes the story. Fraser Sutherland, writing about these stories in The Canadian Forum noted that, “MacLeod’s characters do not live in the past. The past lives in them.” In the blending of past events with present reflection we see the fluidity with which the two merge. The differences between generations seem to be reduced to time while their similarities seem to take the forefront. It is possible that MacLeod uses the device to make a statement about the timelessness of Cape Breton culture. Like the ominous grey dog that haunts generation after generation of the narrator’s family in the book’s title story, themes of good and bad, like the importance of family or the constant trial of economic struggle are passed down to the people of our area throughout the years.
When a writer is able to captivate his audience without the use of overcomplicated plots and unnecessarily high language it becomes obvious that he or she has a gift which overrides the use of such complex tools. This is another trait which Alistair MacLeod boasts in his storytelling. The stories in this book are easy to read and easy to understand and this allows them to hit even closer to the bone as in the following passage from the title story, “As Birds Bring Forth The Sun”: “Two winters later I was sitting at a neighbour’s kitchen table when I looked out the window and saw the dog as he was shot… I learned later that my father had asked the neighbour to shoot him and that we had led him into a kind of ambush.” The reader can truly sympathize with the memory of a child who feels as though he has betrayed the dog, his true friend, who had once saved him from certain death in the frigid waters of the Atlantic in Winter. The language is simple, the situation is believable and the pain seems real.
A sense of real life runs throughout the stories in this collection. The writing is modest but gripping, the stories are uncomplicated but powerful. The characters themselves feel somehow familar, their daily conduct is realistic and their feelings vivid. As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories is not only a great representation of life on the Atlantic coast, it’s also a greatly enjoyable collection of stories and a look into the lives of characters who are both original and realistic.