Alistair MacLeod lives in Windsor, Ontario, and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Alistair MacLeod's Island
. We hope they will aid your understanding of this powerful short story collection, representing thirty years of MacLeod's writing about his beloved Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the descendants of the Scottish Highlanders who inhabit this rugged and beautiful land.
1. For discussion of "The Boat"
1. By the end of the story, does the narrator still feel that "it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations" [p. 21]?
2. For discussion of "The Vastness of the Dark"
1. What does the "dark" of the title symbolize?
2. How might one define the "awfulness" in James' offense of "oversimplification" [p. 55]? How has this oversimplification prevented him from understanding himself?
3. For discussion of "The Golden Gift of Grey"
1. What is the meaning of the title?
2. One of the differences between the older and younger generations reflected in this story as well as in "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" and "The Boat" is that the new generation is formally educated. What is the significance of education in the lives of the characters of Island ? How does having an education accentuate the generation gap, and what other factors contribute to it?
4. For discussion of "The Return"
1. How do the inhabitants of the city compare to the inhabitants of Cape Breton? Why is it significant that the country kids, unlike the city kids, like their teachers [p. 89], a point that is reiterated in "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" [p. 122]?
2. What does the narrator learn during his visit home? How does this son's journey away from home compare to his return in "The Vastness of the Dark"? How do both of these journeys compare to the grandfather's trip to Scotland after World War II in "Clearances"?
5. For discussion of "In the Fall"
1. What is a harsher element for the family to contend with--the weather or MacRae?
2. What family dynamics are reflected in this story? How does this marriage compare to other marriages portrayed in Island ? What binds families together in Island --love, obligation, or something else? How does familial love manifest itself?
6. For discussion of "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood"
1. How do the following images convey the themes of this story: the harbor outside [pp. 118-121], the home inside [p. 126-127], and the man running into the arms of his waiting sons in the airport terminal [p. 142]?
2. When the narrator muses, "Perhaps for me no place at all" [p. 123], where is he trying to fit in--the home, the family? What does it mean to "belong"?
7. For discussion of "The Road to Rankin's Point"
1. How does the description of nature [p. 154] reflect the imminent death of Calum and his grandmother?
2. What does the recurring image of the window [pp. 155, 164, 170] symbolize?
3. Why does Calum's grandmother die that night?
8. For discussion of "The Closing Down of Summer"
1. Why is it so important that the narrator's children die "gentler deaths"? Is this more important than the lives they lead [pp. 198-9]? Why is the transportation of the dead so significant? Is this anticipation of and adjustment to death their only means of gaining control over their destiny?
2. How is the tone of this story different from the others? How does it read both as an introspective testimony and a postmortem missive to his family? Could this story be interpreted as the father's response to James, the son in "The Vastness of the Dark?"
3. What is the significance of the miners' use of Gaelic?
9. For discussion of "To Every Thing There Is a Season"
1. How does the coming-of-age experience in this story compare with those in "The Boat," "The Vastness of the Dark," and "The Golden Gift of Grey"?
2. The story closes with the statement "Every man moves on, but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind" [p. 217]. Is this ending happy or tragic? Is it in any way ironic?
10. For discussion of "Second Spring"
1. What similarities and differences are there between the humans' life cycles and those of the animals? Do the animals dictate the humans' lifestyle as much as the humans dictate the animals'?
2. What is the significance of the ending of this story, which is similar to the ending of "The Golden Gift of Grey," where the boys turn their thoughts to their school sports [p. 248]?
11. For discussion of "Winter Dog"
1. How does the power of memory affect the narrator, and how does it influence his perception of time and place?
2. How do the men's relationships with animals--particularly their dogs--in this and the other stories in Island compare to their relationships with humans? What characteristics of the animals are valued and why?
12. For discussion of "The Tuning of Perfection"
1. How does MacLeod's choice to use the third-person narrative style for this story affect the reader's ability to relate to the characters?
2. What is the role of traditional Gaelic music in this story? How does it compare to the role of the hillbilly music in "The Golden Gift of Grey" and to the sea shanties in "The Boat"?
3. Why did Carver buy Archibald the liquor? Should Archibald have taken it as the high tribute he did [p. 309]?
4. How might this story be described as a medley of love stories? How are they each dominated by loss?
13. For discussion of "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun"
1. This story's opening sentence imitates the style of fables and fairy tales. In what way does this story resemble a fable or contain elements of a fable? Does it teach a moral lesson?
14. For discussion of "Vision"
1. How many different stories does MacLeod weave together in this one, and how do they prove that, in fact, "no story ever really stands alone" [p. 366]?
2. What is the difference between sight and vision? How do the characters without sight "see" differently than those with sight?
3. What does the curious relationship between the grandmother and her blind sister indicate about the nature of kinship in the world of Scottish Canadians and for the characters in Island overall?
15. For discussion of "Island"
1. Who is the red-haired man that appears to the woman at the end?
2. How does the window in this story compare to the window in "The Road to Rankin's Point"?
3. What is the image of the woman that emerges from this story? Is she a prototype for the other women in Island ? Does MacLeod give an authentic voice to the woman, amidst the predominantly male narrators of Island ?
4.How is the woman like Archibald in "The Tuning of Perfection?"
16. For discussion of "Clearances"
1. How does MacLeod's last story (written thirty-one years after "The Boat") serve as a continuation of that story and an epilogue for the whole collection?
17. For discussion of Island: The Complete Stories
1. The characters in Island share a great degree of pride in their heritage and their homeland. How do the stories convey their pride in their lives, their professions, their heritage, their landscape, and their families? Do they also experience joy and happiness?
2. The stories are characterized by thematic and stylistic paradoxes such as myth vs. reality, remoteness vs. nearness, destiny vs. free will, reality vs. romance, and the strange vs. the familiar. How is each of these paradoxes manifested in the stories? Does MacLeod reconcile these paradoxes? Do you detect other thematic or stylistic paradoxes in the stories?
3. In "The Return" the grandmother tells her grandson, "It is not that easy to change what is a part of you" [p. 92]; in "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun" the son realizes, "You cannot not know what you do know" [p. 320]; and in "Clearances" the old man muses to his dog about the life that each of them is currently leading, "Neither of us was born for this" [p. 430]. How do each of these statements convey the theme of fate in Island ? How do the characters cope with their sense of destiny?
4. What is the significance of MacLeod's frequent use of relationships to identify his characters (e.g., fathers, sons, mothers, grandfathers, etc.) and his spare use of his characters' given names?
5. The majority of the stories are told in the first person by a male narrator. What is the effect of this style on the reader's perception of the events? How is the narrator both an active participant and an outside observer of these events? Does the "narrator" ever judge? Is it MacLeod's voice that the reader hears?
6. Does the description "entombed feelings" ["The Closing Down of Summer," p. 197] describe the feelings of many characters in Island ? How are emotions expressed in Island ? Does the physical landscape reflect the emotional isolation of the characters, or does it cause their isolation? Why might have MacLeod selected the word island for the title?
7. MacLeod compares "ivory white gulls" to "overconditioned he-men" in "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" [p. 119], a ship that can save a drowning man to Santa Claus in "To Every Thing There Is a Season" [p. 210], and a memory to a scar in "Vision" [pp. 321-2]. How do these and other examples of MacLeod's original and often elaborate metaphors reinforce the themes of the stories in which they appear?
8. How do the earlier stories differ from the later stories in theme, tone, and style? Have the characters evolved?
9. The descriptions of the animals' life cycles in "Second Spring" conveys most directly the notion running through Island that the path of life is not linear but cyclical, and, moreover, that existence is not constrained to one person's lifetime but rather follows a continuum from one generation to the next. The narrator in "The Closing Down of Summer" muses, "Perhaps we are but becoming our previous generation" [p. 193]. Does this view of life give comfort, or is it stifling? Can one break out of this cycle? How does MacLeod's narrative style and method, particularly in "Winter Dog" and "Clearances," reinforce the theme of the intertwining of lives?
10. How is religion distinguished from superstition in the lives of the characters in Island ? What role does each play? Is it religion or something else that provides a moral code of behavior for the inhabitants of Cape Breton?
11. Despite their portrayal of a way of life probably foreign to many readers, on what level are the stories universally familiar? To which elements can the reader most readily relate?