ALISTAIR MacLEOD’S CHRISTMAS STORY, “TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON”

On Thursday 19 December, listeners to CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” had a special treat. To help celebrate the time of year, the programme played Les Carlson’s fine reading of the story that Alistair wrote in 1977.
You can hear it on the CBC’s As It Happens website.
Or you can read it in the richly illustrated little book that I published with great pride in 2004. It is entitled “To Every Thing There Is A Season : A Cape Breton Christmas Story”.

The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas.

Will he arrive in time? Will the narrator be thought old enough to stay up late on Christmas Eve, to join in the adult gift-wrapping role of helping Santa Claus?

The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow, as the biblical title reminds us. Not a word is out of place. Alistair MacLeod’s writing is like a long poem that begs to be read aloud.

Matching and enhancing the story are twenty-five glorious black-and-white illustrations by Cape Breton’s Peter Rankin, a relative of Alistair’s. They make this book a thing of beauty in every way, one that deserves a place in every Canadian home that values a traditional Christmas.

A FINAL THOUGHT

My dear friend Alistair died in April 2014. I have written about him in my books  Stories About Storytellers, and Across Canada By Story . In fact that 2014 book ends with a toast to Alistair that I gritted out through tears at a Writers’ Union event that summer. The church at Broad Cove (which appears on the cover of this Christmas book, drawn by Peter Rankin), was where Alistair’s funeral took place.
On the last page of Across Canada By Story, I write:

“I heard that there were many tears at his funeral in Broad Cove, Cape Breton. In fact his cousin Kevin, a pallbearer, told me that he wept so copiously that a Cape Breton neighbour was highly impressed. “Kevin,” she said, “when I die, I want you at my funeral.”

Laughter and tears.”

I experienced both of them when I heard the reading on the radio, and rushed to re-read the classic book.

 

 

 

BY FERRY TO ST. F.X.

I’ve spoken and written proudly that as a Scottish immigrant with a unique sense of direction, in 1967 I came to Canada at Victoria off the Seattle ferry. Since then I’ve taken dozens of ferries in Canada, and enjoyed the experience every time. In fact, I find it very hard to come in off the deck when I sail, because exciting things are always happening, and killer whales or U-boats may surface at any second. This accounts for my alert pacing on ferries from Bonne Bay in Newfoundland all the way to Sandspit in Haida Gwaii.

The morning ferry trip from Wood Islands, near the south-eastern tip of PEI,  across to Caribou, Nova Scotia, was exciting. Who knew that PEI’s famous rich, red, earth actually stains the waters just off-shore? And because we were in sight of land all the way, we could constantly judge whether we were half-way, or three quarters of the way, and whether the swell of waves from the west  was mounting, or falling, or if we should head back down to our car below decks. Given the arc of our Maritimes journey, it was ideal to arrive by sea in Nova Scotia near Pictou, well on our way to Antigonish in the east.

But first there was the ugly business of passing the pulp mill at Pictou Landing. This mill, well protected by the political establishment, has caused immense problems, to the water, and to the fish and fishermen in Northumberland Strait. Also, believe it or not, to the world of Canadian books. In December last year, Joan Baxter’s very critical book, THE MILL , about the pulp mill’s sorry record of pollution, was due to be celebrated at a signing session in the New Glasgow Coles store. Pressure from the offended company, Northern Pulp, (and vague threats of trouble in the store) led to the invitation being withdrawn. A major setback for freedom of speech in Canada.

We drove on,  along the main Highway 104, past Stellarton. I remembered an earlier visit there, when I sought out the nearby site of the Westray Mine Disaster. The sorrow around the place where so many men died was omnipresent, almost dripping from the trees above my parked car.

The road east to Antigonish (emphasis on the “nish”) is wild and dramatic, with steep hills and valleys and mountains enlivening the view, and many of the east-bound cars on the road seeming to strain onward to Cape Breton. But we restrained ourselves, and turned in to Antigonish. After two previous visits, we remembered the drill very well: go down the hill past the University, turn right at Chisholm Park, then wind along Main Street until you reach our old home, The Maritime Inn.

There we had lunch, and were joined by our hostess, the remarkable Mary McGillivray. Mary, a vastly experienced teacher at St. F. X., kindly remembered me from a sad duty we performed together many years ago , when with Andy Wainwright  she and I spoke at the Halifax funeral for Malcolm Ross. Malcolm, you may recall, was the Dalhousie Professor who created The New Canadian Library for Jack McClelland. As the head of M&S I was very glad to fly east to speak about how nationally important Malcolm’s work had been, creating an accessible paperback line of our country’s great classic books. Mary recalled that this national message was important to the Halifax family that sad day.

Mary was the salvation of our visit to St. F.X. . Maternity leaves and other absences had left our visit uncertain, until Mary took charge. She took dramatic charge later that evening, too, setting us up with a fine crowd in the  Scotia Bank Lecture  Theatre, and introducing me very kindly. The audience included the pleasant woman whom we’d met at the Antigonish Museum downtown, where I’d not only recognised the uses of the old tools on display in the former railway station, in the past I’d actually once used them. Interestingly, the crowd included the fine man who had told me about Brian Mulroney’s fire-raising trick to win a debate. (I signed his copy of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY with reference to the page where I tell his story). More alarmingly, the Philosophy Department was represented by three keen-eyed professors who, as they had threatened, posed difficult questions. As promised, I’m still considering them.

Finally, Mary took us for dinner to a fine local restaurant, where I ran into the Art Gallery owner we had met in our earlier town tour, seeking out the work of my old friend Linda Johns, “the Bird Lady.” As a village boy I was right at home with this kind of coincidence, and Mary’s stories over dinner were constantly fascinating. But when she told the story that she had seen Brian Mulroney standing on the road, being shown the massive new building in his name, she said “I wondered if he was aware that he was stopping all the traffic, and everyone was looking at him?”

I laughed and laughed.