"The Thaw" - is the lead short story in Alison MacLeod's collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, 2017
A Lock Down Read
Yesterday I began a new project on The Reading Life, Reading While Locked Down. In "The Thaw" we travel back to 1926, our destination is Cape Breton Island, in the eastern Canadian Province of Novia Scotia. Today it is a highly valued travel destination for vacationers, in 1926 it was a hard place to survive. (The story seems based on MacLeod's family history.)
In just a few sentences MacLeod masterfully shows us a tragic soaked in death family history. I want to share a bit of the story:
"As for their mother, Cecelia Maud, it is true what people say. She has never recovered from the deaths of her three grown children: Ethel, Kathleen and, finally, senselessly, Murray, two months after Kathleen. Before Christmas, Marjorie found her mother sitting in the ice house with her coat unbuttoned and sawdust stuck to the bare soles of her feet. After seven daughters, Providence gave Cecelia Maud and James MacLeod a single son, a boy who would become the youngest lawyer ever admitted to the Bar in the province of Nova Scotia."
We see beyond the terrible pain into a family with the strength to produce "the youngest lawyer ever admitted to the Bar in the province of Nova Scotia". We learn nothing about him but we can see way ahead to great things.
The narrative structure centers on twenty nine year old, unmarried, Marjorie Genevieve. She is thrilled with her just purchased after two years of saving, beaver fur coat. To make it all the better, the coat has arrived just in time for the Saturday night dance, a very big event.
"The Herald will assure us that, as she arrives at the Imperial Hotel on Sydney’s Esplanade, Marjorie is a young lady whose thoughts are centred on an evening’s innocent recreation. In the lobby, she passes her fur to the cloakroom attendant, wondering if the girl will be tempted to try it on when no one’s looking. Go on, she wants to say. I don’t mind! But she doesn’t want to presume. ‘Don’t forget your dance cards!’ the girl calls after them, and Marjorie dashes back. For this is a dance, not a society ball, and Marjorie thrills to the faint promise of the unexpected, the spontaneous."
We learn that African Americans have moved to Cape Breton to work in an iron work. They are a new segment to the community. At first Marjorie does not know what to do when a very well mannered Iron worker asks her to dance. We see the subdued racism of the community in the reaction of other dance goers to this.
The ending left me staggered.
"The Thaw" left me feeling I had been to a dance in Cape Breton Island in 1926. In tropical Manila I could feel the cold, fear the ice.
As a Lock Down Story, we see how great art comes from
pain. As a practical matter, I realize me not being able to get my
preferred brand of breakfast cereal is not a horrible burden.
There are 12 short stories in All the Beloved Ghosts I am very much looking forward to reading and posting upon.
Alison MacLeod is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent book, the story collection 'All the Beloved Ghosts', was shortlisted for The 2018 Edge Hill Prize for best story collection in the UK and Ireland. It was a 'Best Book of 2017' for the Guardian, and a finalist for Canada’s 2017 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
Her website has a detailed bio.