Honouring Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

Author Alistair MacLeod, who coined “all of us are better when we are loved,” in his novel No Great Mischief, lived out 77 years with this truth in mind. As a writer who led with a sturdy heart, honoured the soft animal of forgiveness, and dedicated his life to the craftsmanship of literature, he leaves a timeless legacy.

Recently, several Nova Scotia writers gathered to honour one of Canada’s literary giants, who died after suffering a stroke last April, as part of Saint Mary’s Reading Series on January 30.

“In a huge way, as an internationally-respected writer he has helped put Atlantic Canada on the literary map, and reinforced the idea that what is ‘regional’ can have universal significance,” says author Carol Bruneau. “His contribution to English literature on a global level is, of course, a model of inspiration for all who live and write here.”

For novelist Bruneau, who has Cape Breton roots, the loss of MacLeod echoes. Even reading his work aloud was a challenge. She read a passage from “The Closing Down of Summer.” Despite the sound of her own voice, like many others, she still hears MacLeod’s hearty, lyrical voice on the page.

“Alistair was brilliant and humble and very funny: things that make a writer great,” says Bruneau. “He was kind and patient, and as a person he seems to have managed the hardest mix of all, living life and honouring all aspects of it while staying true to his art. It takes a very, very rare person to accomplish all this and to do it so gracefully.”

As a masterful storyteller, who wrote one sentence at a time, excerpts of MacLeod’s work was read by several local authors and poets in tribute, the evening featured appearances by Brian Bartlett, Ian Colford, Deirdre Dwyer, children’s author Sheree Fitch, writers Chris Benjamin and Marjorie Simmins (both Halifax Magazine contributors), poets Alice Burdick, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, plus Valerie Compton, Silver Donald Cameron and others.

Born in Saskatchewan, MacLeod called Cape Breton as his emotional heartland. He returned from Ontario where he taught at the University of Windsor to a cliff-top cabin to write nearly every summer.  MacLeod was fascinated by the hardship of life and resounding beauty on the East Coast. He understood the weathered essence of the region, and translated its heartbeat.

“Alistair’s work gives me a high standard to try to honour. It shows a great amount of craftsmanship and care,” says Chris Benjamin. “Cultural change is a fascinating theme that he explored effectively and in depth to the point where it became a trope that is particularly associated with Atlantic Canadian writing. And through his immense talent and craftsmanship, he brought us a reputation for literary excellence.”

Poet Alice Burdick, who came to MacLeod’s work later in life after moving to Halifax from Toronto in 2002, describes his writing as an Appalachian ballad, both matter-of-fact and powerful. MacLeod wrote about melancholy and every day occasions with great skill. Currently, Burdick continues his legacy acting as a mentor through the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s Alistair MacLeod’s Mentorship Program.

“His work straddled times, but he certainly found it important to describe the whole story, the continuum of past lives into present,” says Burdick. “It is easy for some in Canadian criticism to deride rural-based stories as tropes of Canadian fiction, but there are real and important stories to be told about life on the East Coast of Canada, and the life of the economic immigrant.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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