“The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” by Alistair MacLeod (Ontario Review Press, 1988)

Book #3 in my research reading for a trip to Nova Scotia.  These short stories are existential in their presentations of life, choice, decisions, death.  You won’t come away laughing or even smiling, but you will feel that you have experienced MacLeod’s vision of the people of Cape Breton.  Some stories (there are only seven.) have one protagonist, others cover generations.  The atmosphere is always starkly real.  

Nova Scotia had many waves of settlement. The Micmac were the natives when the Europeans took up residence.  First the French, the famous Acadians who were expelled mid-18th century by the British after six wars for domination.  The British encouraged emigration from the New England colonies and 2000 families came in the early 1760’s, both farmers and fishermen. At the same time, Gaelic Highland farmers in Scotland were forced off their crofts (rented land) by the Highland and Lowland Clearance: landowners forcing the change from farming to sheep grazing.  Also, many Highlanders were Catholic and the prospect of more religious freedom in Canada appealed. Many of these Highland farmers settled in New Scotland, Nova Scotia, around Cape Breton at the far eastern end.  It is the descendants of these people, some still speaking Gaelic, who are the protagonists in MacLeod’s stories.  They settled in Cape Breton to be away from others and continue their Highland traditions.

MacLeod’s stories arise from the pressure of more contemporary society on the traditions and the psyche of these settlers.  They are mostly farmers and fishermen; few characters are from the city.  Animals are laborers, not pets.  The older generation cling to their independence despite infirmity.  In the remote areas, there are no phones, no electricity, only bad roads and tight fishing boats.  

In a slightly different vein, the last story, The Closing Down of Summer, is about miners who go “off-island” for the big bucks and the big risks.  Again, it’s about the pressure of change, knowing that you and your mates will likely be replaced by equipment.  And the miner reflects a point of view I’ve not seen expressed in relation to work underground.

“I have always wished that my children could see me at my work…And that they might see how articulate we are in the accomplishment of what we do.  That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculation of our angles and the measuring of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment.”

I am not a short story lover, but I felt fulfilled by MacLeod’s stories because they allow for character development.  All situated in Cape Breton, you begin to understand the nature of the environment, the people and plots from story to story.

Highly recommended, but not light reading.