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 Return”

Within just a couple of pages, readers meet ten-year-old Alex and his parents, Angus and Mary; we learn that Angus is returning to visit his family in summer, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—after a decade living in Montreal, where he works as a lawyer.

Note: This above image is from the film, directed by William D. MacGillivray, produced in 2005 by National Film Board and Picture Plant. (Watch it, if you love MacLeod’s stories.)

At this point, the story is about Angus’ return, and it’s fraught with predictable stressors. Everything is unsettled from the first page: “The train lurches and he almost loses his balance and quickly has to replace his hand on the baggage rack.”

Each experiences their own disparate emotions as they approach the land to which Angus returns; where they are united is in this sense of displacement, and also their compassion—all evidenced by a simple scene on the ferry, where they sympathize with the seagull who is apart from his flock:

“There is one mottled brown, who feels very ill at ease and flies low and to the left of the noisy main flock. When he ventures into the thick of the fray his fellows scream and peck at him and drive him away. All three of us try to toss our pieces of cheese sandwich to him or into the water directly before him. He is so lonesome and all alone.”

(It occurs to me that the writers whose stories I most enjoy are likely those who reach out to feed that lonesome and lonely gull—The MacLeod Test.)

When they finally arrive at Angus’s family home, we are even more sure that the story is about Angus’s return. “They carry our suitcases to a taxi and then we all bounce along a very rough street and up a hill, bump, bump, and stop before a large dark house which we enter.”

His mother aims for fair-mindedness and acknowledges that it must be difficult for Mary, whose understanding and experience of life are so different. Angus’ wife Mary must be a city girl, even if she’s not always lived in Montreal specifically, and she has definite opinions about bump, bump streets and drinking: she knows nothing of the fishing and mining communities on the Cape.

For his mom, the Cape is where the world begins and it’s where the world ends: “But it seems that we can only stay forever if we stay right here. As we have stayed to the seventh generation. Because in the end that is all there is – just staying.”

His father does not relate to Mary’s position in any way, however, and in one instance Mary’s shock is so clearly and directly expressed that he exits the scene and ends early their first night reunited. “’Well, time for the working class to be in bed. Good night all.’ He goes up the stairs walking very heavily and we can hear his boots as he thumps them on the floor.”

It’s easy to relate to this simple story of a holiday, where everyone feels removed from everyone else, either because of their actual differences or because similarities have faded while they’ve been inhabiting different spaces.  The Celtic cadence in the syntax is hypnotic, the chronology is straightforward, and readers move in and out of the Cape on the train, right along with the family of three.

The Underneath

It’s possible to sustain the idea that the story is about Angus’s return from beginning to end. But MacLeod includes so many mechanical elements of movement through the narrative, that readers are invited to peer at the refraction of returns, to allow our gaze to flit from character to character, from one return to another.

From the opening scene on the lurching train (which mirrors the movement of that other passenger who’s had too much to drink that day, which also recalls Angus’ brother’s behaviour—all the times he had too much, when he lived with Angus, Mary and young Alex in Montreal for awhile), we think of a journey, a passage.

When Alex meets his cousins: “We continue down through the town and farther beyond to the seashore where the fishermen are mending their gear and pumping the little boats in which they allow us to play. Then we skip rocks on the surface of the sea and I skip one six times and then stop because I know I have made an impression and doubt if I am capable of an encore.” (Even the stones are travelling.)

“And then we climb up a high, high hill that tumbles into the sea and a cousin says we will go to see the bull who apparently lives about a mile away.” (The bull has not travelled, he’s right where he’s expected to be, but perhaps the cow has travelled—often, one party is stationary and the other is in motion.)

Alex and his father, Angus, travel to the mines, too: “We are now at the wash-house and the trains from the underground are thundering up out of the darkness and the men are jumping off and laughing and shouting to one another in a way that reminds me of recess.”

Angus’s father, Alex’s grandfather, returns to the surface every day. So predictably that Angus can interrupt the process at an appropriate time to introduce Alex into the rhythm of it.

When the older man pulls young Alex against him and—fresh from the earth below—touches his face, he also pulls Alex into the routine of washing-up at end-of-day. Here, youngest and oldest travel together, for the first time.

“We walk back through the washing men, who are not so numerous now. Then along the wooden path and I look at the tracks our bare feet leave behind. My father is still sitting on the bench by himself as we had left him. He is glad to see us return, and smiles.” Another return. To another part of the mining operation. And this time it’s Angus who is waiting.

Then, all together, they return to the family home: “So we go out into the sun and walk up the long, long hill and I am allowed to carry the lunch pail with the thermos bottle rattling inside. We walk very slowly and say very little.”

Often an inexperienced writer will get hung up on the mechanical details of a scene, spend too much time explaining how characters cross a room, say, or move into and through doorways, or how they follow a route between familiar places, like a law office and a lawyer’s Westmount home. It’s hard to get the hang of it, of knowing how little one cay say while still allowing readers to feel they’re moving in step with the characters. MacLeod includes these details purposefully, to draw attention to the ordinary to-ing and fro-ing that comprises a life.

Taken together, in “The Return”, these details remind readers that one person’s here is another person’s elsewhere. Taken together, they create the possibility that the story is actually about Angus’ return to Montreal. Or, that it’s not even about Angus—after all, the story begins with Alex, Alex at ten years old. Returning to childhood, returning to memory.

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.