Alistair MacLeod has been hailed internationally as a master of the
short story. Now MacLeod's collected stories, including two never
before published, are gathered together for the first time in
Island. These sixteen superbly crafted stories, most of
them firmly based in Cape Breton even if its people stray
elsewhere, depict men and women living out their lives against the
haunting landscape that surrounds them. Focusing on the
complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human
relationships, MacLeod maps the close bonds and impassable chasms
that lie between man and woman, parent and child, and invokes
memory and myth to celebrate the continuity of the generations,
even in the midst of unremitting change. Eloquent, humane,
powerful, and told in a voice at once elegiac and life-affirming,
the stories in this astonishing collection seize us from the outset
and remain with us long after the final page.
From the Hardcover edition.
A. 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]?
B. For discussion of "The Vastness of the
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?
C. For discussion of "The Golden Gift of
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?
D. 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
E. 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?
F. For discussion of "The Lost Salt Gift of
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"?
G. For discussion of "The Road to Rankin''s
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]
3.Why does Calum''s grandmother die that night?
H. For discussion of "The Closing Down of
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?
I. For discussion of "To Every Thing There Is a
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?
J. 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
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]?
K. 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?
L. For discussion of "The Tuning of
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
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?
M. For discussion of "As Birds Bring Forth the
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?
N. 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
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
O. For discussion of "Island"
1.Who is the red-haired man that appears to the woman at the
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
P. 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?
Q. For discussion of Island: The Complete
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''
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
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
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
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?
Discussion questions provided courtesy of Vintage Books, a division
of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.