Magdalen Islands in winter
In Alistair MacLeod’s much-anthologized short story “The Boat,” a father allows himself to be washed overboard while fishing off the coast of Cape Breton so that his son will leave the island to pursue an education on the mainland. The story is told with a kind of Romantic matter-of-factness that gives its otherwise pedestrian rural characters the aureole of high tragedy as it reaffirms the harsh reality of their lives. For the non-Maritime reader, stories like those by MacLeod (or David Adams Richards, Michael Crummey, and Hugh MacLennan) reaffirm the stereotype that life on the East Coast consists mostly of long tracts of stoic misery punctuated by intense periods of deep, unhinged grief and the occasional feed of salt cod and potatoes washed down with a tongue-curling jug of screech.
Whenever I visit the Maritimes I am struck by the complex relationship between how its people exist in the 21st century and how they are imagined in Canadian Literature. I am, as I write this, staying with an old friend who has, for the past two and a half years, served as the only Anglican priest for the small English-speaking community living on the Magdalen Islands, a fish-hook-shaped archipelago in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the week I have been on the Magdalen Islands, I have already heard enough Alistair MacLeod-type stories to fill a small collection. There is the one about the sealers who got caught in the ice a few years ago and were rescued by the coast guard only to be dragged under and drowned by the ice breaker that had come to pull them out because it was going just a little too fast, for example, or the one about the vendetta between two local families that led to attempted murder on the open sea. Then there is the one about the former priest who fell in love with one of her parishioners, or the one about the old woman who watched her husband capsize and drown in the harbour from her front doorstep.
New Prosperity on the Magdalen Islands
While there are still plenty of stories of the hard life and the cold Atlantic, most of the houses in the Magdalen Islands are in good shape, and driveways are filled with new trucks. GPS and state-of-the-art navigational equipment means fishermen almost never run aground on shoals, and high lobster prices mean that a couple of intense months of work can bring in enough money to live comfortably. Moreover, tourism brings thousands to the islands every year, and more and more of the houses are owned by folks from away who come for a couple of months every summer from as far away as New York City and France. In Cap-Aux-Meules, the major port of the Magdalen Islands, one can find kite surfing equipment, artisanal jewellery, fine scotch, and micro-brewed beer. The islands are in the business of lobster, yes, but they are perhaps more importantly in the business of being East Coast, and business is pretty good.
In MacLeod’s work, rural Atlantic Canada is narrated paradoxically: it is both a remote backwater of spiritual and economic depression where people literally kill themselves to make a living, but it’s also a place of great natural beauty and existential authenticity. The narrator of “The Boat”—like most of the narrators in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, the collection in which it was published in 1976—has left the island and found a modicum of success on the mainland but is haunted by the feeling that he has betrayed his heritage in doing so. The landscape continues to define the artist even if the artist has fled the landscape.
MacLeod’s Atlantic Canada no longer exists in any substantial sense, just as the suffocating, dust-bowl Prairies of Sinclair Ross or the pre-séparatiste, anglophone Montreal of Mordecai Richler no longer exist, and the writers of the contemporary East Coast have done a lot to update the stereotypes. Lisa Moore and other members of the Burning Rock Collective have loudly asserted the importance of modern, urban Atlantic Canadian experiences in which hard drugs and the mall feature more prominently than codfish and seal hunting.
Magdalen Islands: Not Your Old Cod Liver Oil
Peter May’s Magdalen Islands thriller
There is still a distinct politics of regionalism in Canadian Literature. Because so many Canadian writers are dependent on the soft-nationalist system of grants and prizes to support themselves, Canadian writers have a vested interest in producing work that is identifiably Canadian in some sense. This often means appealing to specifics of Canadian history, geography, or culture in some kind of obvious way (hence our absurd obsession, as a literary culture, with the historical romance). Other writers chafe against the restrictiveness of such topics and strive for a greater degree of cosmopolitanism, often by incorporating international settings or meditating on problems—such as gender dynamics, mental illness, grunge, or sexual love—that are not solely or distinctly Canadian.
Either way, there remains a difficulty in telling the whole truth about places like the Magdalen Islands: one must either appeal to pre-established notions of what life in a fishing village is all about, or avoid talking substantively about the Islands as a place with a unique geography and culture. It is a problem of relations between centre and margin that will probably always be present in some form or another. However, I look forward to the day when Canadians are comfortable enough with the particular place they occupy and confident enough in the stature of their literature that boy can meet girl in Cap-Aux-Meules, and the fact that he’s a lobster fisherman can just be part of the story.
Murder in Cap-Aux-Meules
I should note, in closing, that there is at least one novel which has been set on the Magdalen Islands—Scottish crime writer Peter May’s 2013 murder mystery Entry Island. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that it is in genre writing (and genre writing by someone not burdened by a tiresome Canadian inferiority complex) that a quintessentially Maritime place has been written about in a way that navigates a passage between cosmopolitanism and regionalism. Setting is deeply important to a thriller, but is not necessarily its primary subject matter. Westerns, after all, are all about place but rarely about a specific place. Romance can happen anywhere, but it helps if you can name the flowers a lover leaves on the doorstep. As the lines between genre and literary fiction blur, perhaps we will see a new body of Canadian writing emerge, one that takes place seriously but not slavishly.
Until then, pass the cod and pour the screech.