Those of you who are reading here now, but not reading Alistair MacLeod’s short stories, will probably only be interested in the first couple of paragraphs after this introduction. Feel free to skip past the section that I’ve titled The Underneath, written with those who know the story-or other writers curious about the mechanical elements of storytelling-in mind. If you’d like to join for a single story or for the duration, here’s the schedule for this reading project. Regardless, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about Alistair MacLeod’s stories, even if you weren’t planning to read them yourself.

On “The Boat”

As the opening story in this collection, “The Boat” sets the tone for what’s to come.

Just the first two sentences (quoted below) hold all of it, in these opening lines:

“There are times even now, when I awake at four o’clock in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs or that the shorebound men are tossing pebbles against my window while blowing their hands and stomping their feet impatiently on the frozen steadfast earth. There are times when I am half out of bed and fumbling for socks and mumbling for words before I realize that I am foolishly alone, that no one waits at the base of the stairs and no boat rides restlessly in the waters by the pier.”

First, there is memory and imagination—with words like ‘frozen’ and ‘shorebound’, ‘frozen’ and ‘steadfast’. All so solid. The kind of solid that needs a new word, like ‘shorebound’, which sits in contrast to the most important entity in the story, the sea.

In the second sentence, there’s reality. A contrasting state, with fumbling and mumbling (in a rhythmic structure that reminds us—if not now, then by the end of the tale—of waves and tides), with words like ‘alone’ and ‘foolish’ and ‘restless’. Barely there.

When people talk about writers who toil at the sentence-level, they mean writers like this. But I find MacLeod remarkable even among that group (sometimes called writers’ writers, as though the only other people interested in those stories are other writers) because a painstaking study of his craft is rewarding but his stories feel effortless, simple, and ordinary.

This is a story about big ideas and it’s also a story about a single fishing family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

This is a story about tradition: the Gaelic settlers with their “savage melancholy of 300 years”, the fishermen’s morning ritual of walking to their boats, and the literary tradition represented by a parent’s love of literature.

And it’s a story about a father whose copies of noir detective stories and Dickens novels are well-read by all seven children in this east-coast family descended from fishers. A story about the youngest, and the only boy, who recognizes the truth of his father’s observation about David Copperfield, that the Pegottys love the sea.

Details about family life—childhood and marriage, catching and hauling, smoking and reading—accumulate. They embody a weight, a tangible representation of what we keep and what we lose. The ashes from cigarettes like “grey corpses” in an ashtray and the kitchen “where we really lived our lives”—these things anchor readers, but the most powerful image in the story is about how these things disintegrate, about the inexplicable contradictions and truths—the things we cannot hold, but which are the foundations upon which we build our lives.

The Underneath

In those first two sentences, I’m reminded of words that I never use, the kind of word that lingers in the recesses of my reading brain: sibilant and susurration. Hissy words that conjure up images and sounds of the sea, language that makes a mist. The meaning, the theme-building, the story—it all matters, and then sound and sense too.

The language that MacLeod uses at the beginning of the story is echoed in the final paragraphs: from word use (‘darkened’ and ‘darkness’, for instance, or ‘foolish’ and ‘silly’) to structure (say, other parallel constructions and contradictions, like flat and rolling or constant and untrue). The phrase and the sentences, the paragraphs and the page: the entire story follows the movement of the tides and the broader cyclical pattern of death and rebirth.

It matters that MacLeod chooses not to title the work for the sea; he titles the story for the structure in which key characters experience the sea, most often and most intimately. The title also reverberates on another frequency, one that readers feel only in the final paragraphs—because how and where we sail and everything about the sea is different after the ending. “I say this now as if I knew it all then,” our narrator says, at the beginning of the story, because he has already lived the ending that readers have not yet witnessed.

Every aspect of the story contains both water and vessel. When it comes to describing the clutter of footwear, against the southern wall of the family home, it’s not about the colours or the expense, but the fact that it’s mostly made of rubber. The characters look out of windows that have views of the sea (or don’t). It’s fun to play with the idea of the home being the boat, the kitchen being the cabin.

The metaphors in the story, even the concrete objects, are still thematically linked to the watery and philosophical rhythms that buoy “The Boat”. The references to the brass bracelets that his father wore to prevent chafing on his wrists from the fishing garb? They are single bands of metal encircling a man’s wrists, and should those circles be linked together, they would become a chain.

“The Boat” is called the “Jenny Lynn”, and it is named as part of a “chain of tradition”. This tradition is evident even visually in the story’s narrator, who observes that he follows in the footsteps of the men who came before him—he who tanned dark and brown in the “manner of my uncles”.

But the six other children in this story are not linked to the sea in the same way that the youngest, the son who is our tale-teller, is bound. And the story is as much about how we loose ourselves and lose ourselves (the girls do feature prominently in the story, as does their mother) as it is about how we are discovered and how we discover ourselves.

There is a lot to consider about tradition and how the brine of our childhoods alters us profoundly and enduringly. And this is a story one could reread many times in a quest to understand that: some times feeling as though all the wisdom in the world exists in this story, other times feeling like reading it a hundred times would leave you afogged.

For the better part of two years, I am rereading Alistair MacLeod’s short stories, from start to stop, just as I’ve done with Alice Munro’s and Mavis Gallant’s short stories previously. If you love short stories or if you would like to be a short-story lover, several of these authors’ stories are among my favourites, and would make an excellent introduction to the finest of the form. If you have other favourite story writers, please feel free to contribute those to the conversation too.