Alistair MacLeod

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Alistair MacLeod
Alistair MacLeod reading at Cape Breton University.jpg
Cape Breton University, 2012
Born (1936-07-20)July 20, 1936
North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada
Died April 20, 2014(2014-04-20) (aged 77)
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, professor
Nationality Canadian
Alma mater Nova Scotia Teachers College, St. Francis Xavier University, University of New Brunswick, University of Notre Dame
Notable work(s) No Great Mischief, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories

Alistair MacLeod, OC FRSC (July 20, 1936 – April 20, 2014) was an acclaimed Canadian novelist, short story writer and academic whose 1999 novel No Great Mischief was voted Atlantic Canada's greatest book of all time.[1] The novel also won several literary prizes including the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. MacLeod set his novel and most of the short stories in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986) on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia where he grew up. He taught English and creative writing for 40 years at the University of Windsor, but returned every summer to the Cape Breton cabin on the MacLeod homestead where he did much of his writing.[2][3] Although he was known mostly as a master of the short story, MacLeod compared all of his fiction writing to playing an accordion. "When I pull it out like this," he explained, "it becomes a novel, and when I compress it like this, it becomes this intense short story."[4]

In the introduction to a book of essays on his work, editor Irene Guilford concluded: "Alistair MacLeod's birthplace is Canadian, his emotional heartland is Cape Breton, his heritage Scottish, but his writing is of the world."[5]

Academic career[edit]

MacLeod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.[2] When he was 10, his family moved to a farm in Dunvegan, Inverness County on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island.[2]

After completing high school, MacLeod attended the Nova Scotia Teachers College and then taught public school. He studied at St. Francis Xavier University between 1957 and 1960 and graduated with a BA and BEd.[2] He then went on to receive his MA in 1961 from the University of New Brunswick and his PhD in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame.[2]

A specialist in British literature of the nineteenth century, MacLeod taught English for three years at Indiana University before accepting a post in 1969 at the University of Windsor as professor of English and creative writing.[2] During the summer, his family lived on the MacLeod homestead at Dunvegan, near Inverness, Inverness County Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island, where he spent part of his time "writing in a cliff-top cabin looking west towards Margaree Island and across the Gulf of St. Lawrence."

He was the subject of a documentary film by the National Film Board, Reading Alistair MacLeod, which was released in 2005.[2]

Published works and methods[edit]

Alistair MacLeod published only one novel and fewer than 20 short stories during his lifetime. He worked slowly refining his sentences until he found what he felt were just the right words.[3] 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."[6] 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."[7]

MacLeod's published works include the 1976 short story collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and the 1986 As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories.[2] The 14 stories in these two volumes appear in Island: The Collected Short Stories of Alistair MacLeod.[2] The book, which also contains two new stories, was released in 2000 the year after the publication of his successful first novel No Great Mischief.[2][3]

In 2004 MacLeod published an illustrated story, "To Everything There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story".[2]

In October 2012, Remembrance, a story commissioned by the Vancouver Writers Fest, was published and sold there as a chapbook.[8]

Critical reaction[edit]

Short stories[edit]

Alistair MacLeod's short stories have generated much critical acclaim especially from Canadian reviewers. In her review of Island, for example, Frances Itani, calls the book of collected stories about miners, fishermen and Scottish Highlanders who came to Cape Breton "simply stunning." She also praises the stories for their emotional impact. "Whether you are reading his stories for the first or for the eighth time, they will make you wonder and they will make you weep. The quality of the writing matches the very best in the world." Itani describes "The Boat", MacLeod's first published story (1968) as possibly the most moving and powerful in Canadian literature. For her, all of the stories show a master craftsman at work. "Every story is expertly paced. The internal rhythm has been so perfected, the stories appear to unfold by themselves. There are no tricks; there is no visible or superimposed planning or plotting. Events unfold as unpredictably as life itself."[9]

The English literary critic, James Wood, on the other hand, criticized what he saw as "a certain simplicity, even sentimentalism" in many of the stories in Island. He also found some of them overly melodramatic adding: "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. The men are white-haired and silent, the women dark-haired with sharp tongues." Although Wood conceded MacLeod's status as a writer, he pointed to certain flaws. "MacLeod is a distinguished writer, but his strengths are inseparable from his weaknesses: the sincerity that produces his sentimentality also stirs his work to a beautifully aroused plainness." Wood singles out one story, "The Tuning of Perfection", however, for its "complete lack of sentimentality." He writes that by delicately retrieving the past, MacLeod achieves a fineness removed from much contemporary North American fiction. He concludes that in this story, MacLeod "becomes only himself, provokingly singular and rare, an island of richness."[10]


MacLeod died on April 20, 2014, after suffering a stroke in January 2014. He was 77.[11]


Macleod's 1999 novel No Great Mischief won several awards including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Trillium Book Award, the Thomas Head Raddall Award, the Dartmouth Book & Writing Award for Fiction, the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards for author of the year as well as fiction book of the year (2000) and the Atlantic Provinces Booksellers' Choice Award.[12][13] In 2009, No Great Mischief was voted Atlantic Canada's greatest book.[14]

In 2008, MacLeod was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.[2] He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.[12]

On December 4, 2009, MacLeod received the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction[15] along with Amy Hempel.


His son Alexander MacLeod is also a writer, whose debut short story collection Light Lifting was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist in 2010.[16]


  1. ^ Adams, Trevor J. and Clare, Stephen Patrick. (2009) Atlantic Canada's 100 Greatest Books. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Limited.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Alistair MacLeod at The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  3. ^ a b c "Alistair MacLeod author of No Great Mischief, dies at age 77". National Post, April 20, 2014.
  4. ^ Wayne Grady. "Complexity graces MacLeod's stories: Short works soar with details worthy of a novel." Calgary Herald, May 13, 2000, p.E10.
  5. ^ Irene Guilford, ed. (2001) Alistair MacLeod, Essays on His Works, Toronto: Guernica Editions Inc., p.10.
  6. ^ Tom Ayers. "He always found the right word," The Chronicle-Herald, April 21, 2014, p.A1.
  7. ^ "Alistair MacLeod discusses the art of writing slow". CBC Radio Cape Breton. Retrieved 2014-04-21. 
  8. ^ "Remembrance". The Vancouver Writers Fest. Retrieved 2014-04-21. 
  9. ^ Frances Itani. "Life work of a master: Alistair MacLeod's stories are among the best in the world." The Ottawa Citizen, April 30, 2000, p.C14.
  10. ^ James Wood. "The isle is full of noises". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-04-21. 
  11. ^ "Canadian author Alistair MacLeod dies at 77". Toronto Star, April 20, 2014.
  12. ^ a b "Dr. Alistair MacLeod, professor emeritus". University of Windsor. Retrieved 2014-04-20. 
  13. ^ "Winner History Libris Awards". Canadian Booksellers Association. Retrieved 2014-04-22. 
  14. ^ Laura Jean Grant. "No Great Mischief the greatest". Cape Breton Post. Retrieved 2014-04-20. 
  15. ^ "PEN/Malamud Award Memorial Reading". Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  16. ^ "Alexander MacLeod: Small town, big honours". Vancouver Sun, October 5, 2010.