The Boat: A Short Story by Alistair MacLeod #1968Club

Joining in on the 1968 Club this week seemed like a long shot for me until I came across this short story by Alistair MacLeod, published in 1968 and the first story in the collection Island.

The Boat

A Midwestern University professor looks back at his childhood in 1930s Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He grew up in a fishing community, and recalls the first time his father took him out on the boat.

When we returned to the house everyone made a great fuss over my precocious excursion and asked, “How did you like the boat?” “Did you cry in the boat?” They repreated “the boat” at the end of all their questions and I knew it must be very important to everyone.

My earliest recollection of my mother is of being alone with her in the mornings when my father was away in the boat. She seemed to be always repairing clothes that were “torn in the boat”, preparing food to be “eaten in the boat” or looking for “the boat” through our kitchen window which faced upon the sea. When my father returned about noon, she would ask, “Well, how did things go in the boat today?”

His father was not happy being a fisherman – he loved to read and valued education. His room was on the main floor off the kitchen and it was always in turmoil, books covering every surface. Any time he wasn’t out on the boat, he could be found in his room, reading.

Magazines and books covered the bureau and competed with the clothes for domination of the chair. They further overburdened the heroic little table and lay on top of the radio. They filled a baffling and unknowable cave beneath the bed, and in the corner by the bureau they spilled from the walls and grew up from the floor.

One by one his sisters discovered their father’s room and became spellbound by the volumes they found there. Their mother’s reaction bordered on angry: “Take your nose out of that trash and come and do your work.” “I would like to know how books help anyone to live a life.” One by one his sisters got jobs and moved away from the village to live their lives elsewhere.

The winter the boy turned 15, his father became ill. The boy left school to help with the fishing. But after only the first day, his father called him into his room and asked him to go back to school. So he did. While his mother said, “I never thought a son of mine would choose useless books over the parents that gave him life.”

… and I wished that the two things I loved so dearly did not exclude each other in a manner that was so blunt and too dear.


Read the story yourself and discover how it ended for this family and many others who saw their children off into the world instead of staying to take over the traditional way of life.

And it is not an easy thing to know that your mother looks upon the sea with love and on you with bitterness because the one has been so constant and the other so untrue.


A favourite passage, taken from a day when the boy and his father are out fishing together…

We wore heavy sweaters now and the awkward rubber slickers and the heavy woollen mitts which soaked and froze into masses of ice that hung from our wrists like the limbs of gigantic monsters until we thawed them against the exhaust pipe’s heat. And almost every day we would leave for home before noon, driven by the blasts of the northwest wind coating our eyebrows with ice and freezing our eyelids closed as we leaned into a visibility that was hardly there, charting our course from the compass and the sea, running with the waves and between them but never confronting their towering might.


The 1968 Club is hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

36 thoughts on “The Boat: A Short Story by Alistair MacLeod #1968Club

  1. FictionFan says:

    What an interesting turnabout that it should be his mother who wants him to stick with tradition while his father is encouraging him to expand his horizons – it’s usually the other way round, in fiction at least. I haven’t read any Alistair MacLeod, but I’ve saved the link for this one for later – thank you!

    • Naomi says:

      My pleasure! ๐Ÿ™‚
      I thought the same thing… that it’s usually the other way around. But I didn’t know if that was just my own experience…

  2. annelogan17 says:

    Very cool! Iโ€™m actually about to read the special short story he wrote about Remembrance Day for the Vancouver writers festival-I got a signed copy! Review to come…hopefully I like it as much as you liked this!

  3. JacquiWine says:

    How lovely that you were able to find a short story from 1968 to read for the Club. I always forget to consider individual pieces like this when I’m checking my own shelves for suitable options. The story itself sounds very good, both subtle and humane. Your first quote reminds me a little of my own childhood as my father loved to take us out on his boat at the weekends. Ah, happy memories.

    • Naomi says:

      The story has a nostalgic feel to it, actually. But also a feeling of regret. Sometimes, whatever you decide, you just can’t win.

      At first I felt a short story was a bit like cheating, but I really liked how it got me to pay much closer attention than I would have if I was reading a whole volume of stories.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Oh, so THAT’s the one. Now I have to go and reread it. Now I understand why you only needed to read a single story!

  5. Grab the Lapels says:

    This story reminded me of that short story/episode of The Twilight Zone in which the whole world gets nuked, and all that survives is an over-worked bank teller book worm who can FINALLY be left alone to read…when he accidentally breaks his reading glasses!!

  6. Bellezza says:

    What a wonderful review! I feel like I can picture the characters already, reminiscent in some ways of my own family. The setting of the sea reminds me a bit of The Unseen, a novel I read for the Man Booker International Prize last year which is quite exceptional.

    • Naomi says:

      Thank you, Bellezza! The story is even more wonderful. And now I’m going to check out The Unseen (I’ll probably recognize it from your blog once I see it!).

  7. whisperinggums says:

    I read No great mischief long ago, which I really enjoyed. I love the cover of this book.

    I don’t think a short story is cheating at all. I do it a bit for the Australian Women Writers Challenge – mainly to get authors in there who aren’t so easy to cover! I might think of a short story for Kaggsy’s challenge too.

    • Naomi says:

      It turned out well for me in many ways – I discovered that I like writing about one story at a time, rather than a whole collection. And this is my most popular post by far! It’s nice to know so many students are reading it for school. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • whisperinggums says:

        Year after year, short stories are among my long-term most popular posts Naomi which suggests to me that are being read more school, which, like you, I think is lovely to know.

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