For this second week of my tour of Canada through short stories, I was in Nova Scotia reading “The Closing Down of the Summer” by Alistair MacLeod.
The first thing I notice about reading “The Closing Down of Summer” is the pace. I always read short stories quite slowly, trying to pay attention to the words. With this story, I found that even if I had wanted to read it fast, I could not have. It was a bit like reading poetry; the prose had rhythm.
Secondly, I find that it is a story in the tradition of Frank O’Connor. I am not saying that MacLeod deliberately follows O’Connor, but O’Connor’s description of the short story as the expression of submerged populations, as the lonely voice, is an appropriate description for this story.
The story is told in the first-person by a miner. The summer is coming to its end; he and his fellow workers are enjoying the last bit of the sun before going back shaft mining. This is the occasion for the narrator to reminisce on past events, to consider his life and to ponder the mining tradition.
I find the title quite significant: it is the “closing down” and not “the end” of summer. I think it brings our attention to this particular trade that is shaft mining, a trade that has been followed generation after generation. However, the narrator makes us aware of the changes brought by modernity and the fact that none of his children will follow his steps. It is the end of a tradition. For these miners, the end of the summer means going back to work, but also facing death; each summer could be their last summer and the narrator remembers that October day when he buried his brother. Like the fish in the sea taken by those “huge factory fleets from Russia, Spain and Portugal”, their number is diminishing.
“And we have gathered our working clothes, which when worn continents hence will make us loom even larger than we are in actual life. As if we are Greek actors or mastodons of an earlier time. Soon to be replaced or else perhaps to be extinct.”
There is a feeling of loneliness in this story. Those miners are alienated. They live in tradition, cut off from their families, who represent modernity. However, there is still hope that traditions do not become radically erased as they remember those gaelic songs, “so constant and unchanging”, from their youth and the narrator can still remember those verses from the 15th century he read when he was a student.