Last reviewed: June 2017
July 20, 1936
North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada
April 20, 2014
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Alistair MacLeod is generally considered one of Canada’s finest prose writers. He was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where his father, Alexander MacLeod, and his mother, Christena MacLellan MacLeod, had relocated during the Depression. Alistair was still young when the MacLeods returned to their native Cape Breton Island and the family farm. Alistair MacLeod grew up in a large, extended family, whose members clung to their island and held to their Highland Scots traditions. Family, place, and heritage are basic values in all of MacLeod’s works.
After graduating from high school, MacLeod earned a certificate from Nova Scotia Teachers’ College and taught for a year on Port Hood Island, near Cape Breton. He left to attend St. Francis-Xavier University in Antigonish; in 1960 he graduated with both a B.A. and a B.Ed. The following year, MacLeod earned an M.A. from the University of New Brunswick. He was already interested in the short-story genre; his thesis was on Canadian short fiction in the 1930’s. Alistair MacLeod.
Although for some time MacLeod had been writing poetry and short fiction and in 1961 had a story published, his primary objective was a career in academics. After two years as an English instructor at Nova Scotia Teachers’ College, he moved to the United States and entered the University of Notre Dame. In 1968 he was awarded his doctorate. Again, he had focused on the short-story genre; his dissertation dealt with Thomas Hardy’s collection A Group of Noble Dames.
In 1969 MacLeod joined the faculty at the University of Windsor, Ontario, where he would remain permanently, teaching English and creative writing. In 1971, he married Anita MacLellar, a Cape Breton native. They had six children. Throughout the years, the MacLeods spent their summers on Cape Breton, in a house that once belonged to the author’s great-grandfather.
Soon MacLeod’s stories and poems began appearing in literary periodicals. However, MacLeod admitted that he wrote very slowly. It was ten years before his first collection appeared, and it contained just seven stories. In his second, which was published ten years later, there were seven more. His third volume was made up of ten stories from the previous books, along with one new story, “Island.”
It was MacLeod’s best-selling novel, No Great Mischief, that brought him worldwide recognition. In 2001, No Great Mischief won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The novel was followed by Island: The Complete Stories, which was in fact a selection of previously published short fiction, along with one new story, “Clearances.” This volume made MacLeod’s short stories available to his many new readers.
Even though MacLeod’s themes and techniques placed him outside the mainstream of contemporary fiction, critics find much to admire in his work. Not only does his beautifully crafted fiction capture the essence of a unique place and its people, it also speaks unsentimentally but honestly of such universal values as courage, loyalty, and faith.
MacLeod died of complications from a stroke in 2014 at the age of seventy-seven, having published only one novel and less than two dozen short stories.