This kind of parallel structure (‘strange and far away’ and ‘licorice and movie matinees’ and ‘very close and real’) was evident in “The Boat” as well. In that context, it mimics the natural rhythm of the tides, which suits that story about a fisher family. Here, the same rhythm holds a different significance, but still alludes to powers greater than any single person.
In the broader sense, however, the idea of mining also works metaphorically. I think about Alistair MacLeod’s way of writing, deliberate and detailed, when I read this passage: “It was a very narrow little seam that we attacked, first with our drilling steels and bits, and then with our dynamite, and finally with our picks and shovels.” He employs a variety of tools to expose meaning and emotion in his stories.
The pick lands in the earth at a specific point when the story begins, but what follows, the work that unfolds, it all changes the way that readers define surface and beneath, present and past, thought and memory.
Similarly, this is a story about a specific father and son in Cape Breton, but it also seems to be about parents and children universally. Both the father in “The Boat” and the father in this story, for instance, have a reason to keep one foot on the ground, even while sleeping, like this: “His mouth is slightly open and there are little bubbles of saliva forming and breaking at its corners, and his left arm and perhaps even his left leg are hanging over the bed’s edge and resting upon the floor.” (Check out those spit bubbles: in and out, like tiny waves.)
In some ways, the fathers’ reasons are contrasting, in other ways, comparable. Underneath it all, the course of things takes the shape of a vein, whether a river of water or a seam of coal. Maybe one person, like James, is only “flotsam on yet another uninteresting river”. Maybe the take-away is something grander: “Their lives flowing into mine and mine from out of theirs.”
Maybe this is a story of a marriage. Maybe it’s a story of his marriage. What we know from the film, is that Alistair MacLeod’s writing day was something that happened before noon, with the rest of the day dedicated to family life. We don’t know if he wrote this story thinking of himself as the father, or as the son. But, after reading, we know that there is little difference, and an astonishing difference, between the two experiences of the world.