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Dreams Of Home
by D.It Macdonald

CAPE BRETON. For many of us, the name conjures up the glossy postcard image of a rugged landscape where tartan?clad Scots toss the caber, play the bagpipes, and converse in fluent Gaelic. 'Me reality, as wistfully described in Eyestone, D. R. Macdonald's first collection of stories, is something quite different. The Scots heritage is in tatters ? only the middle?aged or older understand Gaelic ? and drinking is for many a full?time occupation. Macdonald's Cape Breton hangs on, far from the mainstream of North American life, its existence threatened by irreversible economic pressures.

Eyestone's nine stories tell of suicide, alcoholism, early death, funerals, thwarted sexual desire, back?breaking labour, and stooped old age. In "The Flowers of Bermuda" Bilkie, a fisherman, cherishes a vision of a Gaelic ancestral home, an ideal that is shattered when his mentor, the local clergyman, is stabbed to death on a visit to Scotland. Macdonald's point is unmistakable. The dreams that made life endurable in the past are no longer tenable.

But dreaming of a chimerical past is about all Cape Bretoners have left.. In story after story

Macdonald's characters turn to memories, triggered by simple things like a fine of 'poplars or a Chinese rifle brought back from Korea, to make the grim present meaningful. Typical is Little Norman in "Work," who finds himself, at 70, able?bodied but rudderless without Jack his fife?long work mate; years of hard living have forced Jack into an old age home. In the tale's haunting conclusion Norman hitchhikes dazedly to an abandoned quarry where he and his friend had laboured years before and sets to work with his sledgehammer.

Many of his characters are middle?aged? Cape Breton?bred exiles (like Macdonald himself) whose travels have heightened their cultural nostalgia. In ?Me Wharf King" a California resident back home for his brother's funeral, performs a dangerous adolescent rite of passage in avain attempt to recapture the past. An elderly former seaman in "S~ prays beside his bed each night and still conducts his life purposefully. The narrator, his itinerant, 40ish son, observes enviously, "I think he has never been lost" And in the title story a Boston artist gradually succumbs to the arcane Celtic mysteries practised by his sibylline neighbour.

Despite the harsh life recorded in E~ most of its dramatic incidents happen offstage. Macdonald, at his best, is a master at charging with urgency apparently casual exchanges between his characters. One of the collection's finest stories is "One of a Kind," which involves a 70?year old handyman's visit to a widowed blind woman who has employed him off and on for years. She lives alone in the bush. He makes a pass at her, which she easily rebuffs. The tale smoulders with repressed feelings of sexual longing and social inferiority that are closely tied to the surrounding wilderness.

Macdonald's touch is not always, so sure. "The Chinese Rifle," for instance, skirts the issue of suicide with such delicacy that the winding narrative loses its way. This story is notably lacking the mature assurance that characterizes most of the others in the volume. Macdonald's Cape Breton is very much a male world, and the author is a little ill at ease with his female characters. His women play mainly supportive roles and are usually seen through men's eyes.

D. R. Macdonald writes unadorned, simple prose much in the mariner of V. S. Pritchett, although the whole is more impressive than the fine detail: for instance, his use of metaphor for example, the tree torn up by a storm "its great clay ball an agony of torn roots" ? is sparing but always apt.

It's a critical truism, I suppose, but that doesn't diminish the fact that many of Canada's finest writers are regionalists. One need only mention Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain, Alice Munro's southern Ontario, Margaret Laurence's Manawaka or David Adams Richards's New Brunswick to prove the point. Their intense rendering of a geographical pinprick transcends the particularities of place. D. R. Macdonald's portrait of Cape Breton in Eyestone follows this tradition of Canadian writing. Although this collection is his first his name is not out of place beside those mentioned above.


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