One of my former English professors recently wrote a brief reflection in The Globe and Mail in response to the question “What is your favourite book to teach?” His answer? The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, a short story collection by Alistair MacLeod. It just so happens that this was also my favourite book to study in his class–and an overall highlight of my university English experience.
As an Ontario city dweller, I was naturally captivated by the Eastern Canada landscapes captured in his, richly lyrical, sensual prose. But it was not only the masterly depiction of wind, sea, and rock that drew me in. MacLeod is a master of interior landscapes as well—the memories, histories, and family loyalties that can both haunt characters into quiet inaction and propel them into great—often tragic—change.
Like all brilliant writers, MacLeod creates a fictional space of specificity where relatable—and ultimately universal—tensions can play out. His is a voice of vast intimacy, and it still echoes through my mind with singular intensity—especially when I sit down at the desk to try my own hand at fiction. His narrators are usually either inside or looking back on the mysterious terrain of childhood, and trying to reconcile the known with the unknown. I had never read first person narrators quite like MacLeod’s before—characters capable of holding paradoxical emotions in such forthright phrases and sentences. I have one such passage from the story “The Boat” underlined in the now-tattered copy I used as a student. The narrator, upon hearing his drunken father singing the sea chanties and war songs of his ancestors says: “I was ashamed yet proud, young yet old and saved yet forever lost, and there was nothing I could do to control my eyes which wept for what they could not tell.”
A line like that keeps me going back to fill my own blank pages, awestruck and haunted by MacLeod’s sharp eloquence—and by the empathetic power of literature itself.
So if you have not yet read The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, go out and get yourself a copy. And while you’re at it, pick up everything else Alistair MacLeod has ever written–his second short story collection and his novel. His beautiful work will haunt and inspire you. I just know it.