“The Boat” by Alistair MacLeod

Short story #5

This is a story that I very much enjoyed which says as much about me as it does about the work itself. I find I have an affinity for Canadian literature. In part, this is due to my many fond memories of traveling in Canada, largely the Canadian west. Canada to me has always felt more wild and raw than the United States, as if it is a generation or two younger. I remember my childhood adventures, staying at remote wilderness lodges, finding arrowheads, lodging by a working gold mine, checking into a hotel because the campground we had planned to stay at warned to “Beware of grizzly bears.” I remember the kindness of a family who invited us in to their house to watch the news with them as Nixon resigned. Yes, I’m that old.

Alistair MacLeod writes of eastern Canada, where I’ve never been, but it has the same wilderness feel, the same sense of immigrants pioneering a difficult land. As an aside, the movie Maria Chapdelaine (2021) scratches the same itch and is recommended. “The Boat” is available on JSTOR for those who are interested and willing to set up an account. It takes place in Nova Scotia and is written from the viewpoint of a son who assists his father in running his fishing boat. It is a hard life and both the narrator and his parents have given much to support this way of life.

I loved the characters, the narration, the sense of place in this tale. The language is beautiful, the people come to life, I feel an urge to, book a ticket to Cape Breton and breathe the sea air, walk on wild beaches. MacLeod was a slow and careful writer. This is from his Wikipedia page:

Fellow Cape Breton writer Frank Macdonald described MacLeod as a perfectionist. “He wouldn’t set a story free,” Macdonald said, “until he was convinced that it was ready.” He added that MacLeod never rewrote a story. “He wrote a sentence, and then waited, then wrote another sentence.”[24] During a CBC Radio interview in 2011, MacLeod spoke about how he shaped his work. He explained that halfway through a story, he would write the final sentence. “I think of that as the last thing I’m going to say to the reader,” he said. “I write it down and it serves as a lighthouse on the rest of my journey through the story.”[25]

As a person who writes/is learning to write, I find this process fascinating and an approach that would never work for me, an obsession with craft that meant that MacLeod created some remarkable literature but very little of it. MacCleod died in 2014 after writing only around 20 short stories and one novel that some consider one of the best Canadian novels.

Judging from my reading of contemporary short stories (“The Boat was written in 1968), modern readers expect something more complex, mysterious, non-linear, perhaps. A reviewer in the Guardian says: “Several of MacLeod’s stories have a quality of emotional genre-painting, and display a willingness to let the complexities of character die into stereotype.” I feel an urge to defend my taste in literature but it’s better to leave that to the individual reader.

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