A masterful evocation of a displaced people caught between past and present.

Like the poignant lament of a Scottish piper, this first collection by the acclaimed Canadian writer (No Great Mischief, p. 410) details the bittersweet lives of the Highlanders and their descendants who settled on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.

Chronologically arranged according to publication date, MacLeod’s 16 tales reflect a lifelong preoccupation with a place, a people, and a language: the Gaelic tongue that everyone once spoke. By the 1980s, the time of “Clearances,” only the old-timers speak the language, since—as the aging protagonist, the last to farm the family land, observes—the Highlanders are now, like other minorities, “trapped in the beautiful prisons of the languages they loved.” Earlier stories are also infused with memories of past sorrows and hardships as characters recall how avaricious landlords forced their ancestors out of the Scottish Highlands, and how, once they landed on the island to contend with treacherous weather and fractious seas, they cleared the land, raised livestock, and fished the waters. The volume includes the two stories that earned MacLeod inclusion in the Modern Library’s list of the 200 greatest writers in English since 1950. In “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” a teacher at a midwestern university returns to see the young son he fathered but never acknowledged, and reluctantly rejects the claims of both fatherhood and the timeless place where the old superstitions linger, and children still catch trout, trap lobsters, and sing Gaelic songs. And “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” shows how the spectral sighting of a gray dog whose feral pups once killed the ancestor of a Toronto family portends further death. Other pieces depict families losing loved ones to coal-mining disasters, to storms at sea, and more insidiously to cities like Toronto as the fishing dies out, the mines close, and tourists buy up the oceanfront farms.

A masterful evocation of a displaced people caught between past and present.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-393-05035-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2000



It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990



Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013