Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Alistair MacLeod’s Island

I’ve never understood why short stories are sometimes maligned, even by a young readership who are, at least anecdotally, accustomed to the brief-attention-span-behaviour that technological modes and social media are said to encourage. Studying short stories at pre-tertiary level offers students such a valuable entry into this rich form of text, where language is refined and distilled and can be analysed like the language of poetry, but with a more accessible narrative base that won’t alienate even the less confident readers.

The small worlds of Alistair MacLeod in Island are small only in word-length: in stories of generally around 20 pages each, whole lives (and sometimes multiple generations) are captured and conveyed often through the progression or observation of a single day or season. The underlying themes of place and identity, growth and change, home and nostalgia, familial love and claustrophobia, and transition (from youth to adulthood and, perhaps most commonly in this collection, from life to death) are intimately relatable to a wide range of readers. The language, while descriptive and rich, is also very simple, concrete and sparse, making it both accessible and also a rich challenge for students in terms of analysing symbolism, the construction of imagery and the communication of ideas.

One of the central ‘characters’ in this text is the land itself: the harsh, unforgiving, extreme landscape of a coastal Canadian province. While far from familiar Australian shores and lives, there will be common issues that resonate with some of our Australian stories too: those of rural and agricultural survival; of the decisions to leave family land and abandon traditional livelihoods; of the regrets and conflicts inherent in leaving homes and never being able to return in the same way. Woven through these stories are familiar experiences of grief, loss, parent-child relationships and the rites of passage that are inescapable for young people. This blend, of (Western) universal emotions and trials with a very geographically specific location, makes for a text that both appeals to readers’ own life understanding and also opens readers’ eyes to lives and realities completely beyond their own: a really useful combination of comfort-zone and challenge when setting content for students at this level.

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia – where MacLeod was raised, and where most of the stories in Island are set – is a tiny, remote, isolated part of the world; it’s not much larger in area than Melbourne. Like any far-flung territory, there is an attractive lure of the mythology of place, from which MacLeod draws inspiration in his stories. Sometimes this mythology is culture-specific; for example, the intertwining mysteries of the many lives chronicled in ‘Vision’ (one of the collection’s longest stories) touch upon local superstition, Scottish folk tropes, WWII history, and also the idiosyncratic relationship of the two central families in the framing narrative. At other times such mythology is more universal, such as in the ‘To Every Thing There Is A Season’ when the transition out of childhood is encapsulated by the loss of innocent Christmas-time magic. In other stories, there are mythologies of environment, such as the romanticising yet also othering of islands, island life and island-dwellers – particularly in the eponymous story, though this idea also applies to the collection as a whole.

These recurring and also contrasting thematic layers throughout and between the stories are a demonstration of how the many short works in the collection, while often seeming superficially similar in tone, setting, style and central themes, each speak to multiple concerns. It’s an ideal collection, in this sense, for helping students learn to understand how themes and ideas can be conveyed not only through full-length narratives, but through disparate or partially linked short works. May collections like this breed lifelong readers of the form: it needs their support!

Essay Questions

  • How do the historical realities of Cape Breton inform the contemporary experience there?
  • How does MacLeod link the stories in his collection?
  • How do the stories use characters to develop the theme of isolation?
  • What role does the landscape play in Island?

Need help getting to grips with Island? Click here to purchase our Island Insight Text Guide, written by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With story-by-story analyses, discussion of characters and relationships, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Island provides clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis on the whole text.

 Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, your independent, Australian educational publisher.


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