Alistair Macleod, an unprolific short story writer of his native Nova Scotia, is renowned for the realistic manner in which he depicts the everyday life of closely-bound communities often through the philosophic eyes and contemplations of a manual laborer. What enables him to give an authoritative, sensitive-to-details, and affective voice to his narrators are real-life, first-hand experiences in the fields of logging, fishing, farming, and mining. His personal contact with these mundane, depressive, and lonesome occupations lends depths to the morale of his stories regardless even of the scrupulousness by which he creates them. “The Closing Down of Summer” is a story narrated by a thoughtful miner who becomes both physically and mentally isolated from his family and, in general, the outside world owing to his job beneath the ground. He claims stake to two spheres of seclusion along with his crew whose features are striking opposites of one another. The first one is an intricate, grimy, and narrow pipe-system of shafts and tunnels dug into the earth where danger lurks and occasionally takes its toll, whereas the other one is the idyllic stretch of little-known beach near his hometown. The juxtaposition of the two places evokes to a certain degree purgatorial conditions, but the question of physical labor over intellectual ventures, and the supposed fainting of family ties as a result of such a maverick job are also liable to analysis.
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The story starts on an August day towards the end of an especially hot summer, which had robbed the lands of water and life, as the mining crew pensively waits for a change in the season: the coming of the gales that command them back into the belly of the earth. Interrupting each year their toilsome work with the short respite of a summer vacation (Larsen), they at last go home and reunite with their families after months of absence, impersonal postcards, and phone calls on noisy lines. At least, it would seem logical to return, but that expectation of ours gets lost in the way, for they have no place to return to. As the story proceeds forth and the mythical aura of the mines is literally unearthed to us, we struggle gradually to understand why it cannot happen so – why it’s hard, even impossible, to come back as we’ve gone. The moist, deafening burrows of darkness have had their effect on the pitmen to whom the world of their homes seems overly tidy, plastic, even superficial. How are we to have them reconcile with the shiny pretence long months of back-breaking work had made possible? It’s just understandable that they regret the outcome of their hard-earned money. Upset, disappointed, let-down: the miners choose to be isolated from their families even when only miles or hundreds of yards away and to be among those who feel alike.
During the holiday, they gather together on an inaccessible “golden little beach [which] curves in a crescent for approximately three-quarters of a mile and then terminates at either end in looming cliffs.” This little stretch of seashore is thus enveloped by cliffs that, shutting off the world, “protect the beach and preserve its tranquility.” The whole valley teems with the imagery of innocent, untouched, primordial times. It’s a dreamlike place full of natural beauties like the vista of a bellowing sea and a small brook that, tipping over the edge of the rocks ends its journey in a waterfall, in the spray of which the miners often shower. The crew lounges around naked, their bodies the color of unspoiled whiteness from lack of contact with the sun, and old fishermen oar close to the shore to exchange – not cash or credit – their catch for the ambrosial home-brewed Scotch of the miners which they have come to call moonshine. The beach represents a pre-modern, calm, undisturbed form of life and allows itself to be claimed the allegory of heaven.
Still, they long to leave this Elysium behind in favor of their steady job which requires that they retreat underground into a domain that has been considered the home of evil powers. Underneath the surface they live in constant fear of sudden and violent deaths, in memories of friends flown home in parts lying incomplete and disconnected in their coffins, in endless thoughts, but through physical work they do, what’s more, create something palpable. The narrator says that “there is perhaps a certain eloquent beauty to be found in what we do.” They do not merely go into the shafts like prisoners; drilling, hammering, exploding, they reveal the world’s resources and “[leave] them for others to expand or to exploit and to make room.” Theirs is the lion’s share, the most arduous part of the task, yet they remain in the background, unacknowledged and unappreciated as though they are making a sacrifice to others. It is, however, an indigestible burden. Virtually no one apart from themselves can see to understand what harshness renders difficult the carrying out of their work (Hannan). They have become a clique of secret sacrifices that are detained unspoken in the bleak shafts every time they fly back home. Unable or unconcerned to understand their ways, the families hold them in a mild disdain as primitive and naÃ¯ve people who unthinkingly lift their axes and strike them against the solid rock.
Still sunbathing on the beach, through the introspective reminiscences of a first person crew foreman, we are acquainted with the profundity of manual labor in the face of cultural developments taking place in Nova Scotia (Lepaludier). After the melancholy air of mines has infiltrated into us, the narrator’s train of thought jumps ahead and over time to brood over the possible paths of life his children would follow (Soto). This is the part when the narrator’s inclination to fruitful physical work is best manifested contrary to the hollowness and fallibility of intellectual attempts. He recounts in a repentant tone that
[his] sons will go to universities to study dentistry or law and to become fatly affluent before they are thirty. â€¦ To grow prosperous from pain and sorrow and desolation of human failure. Yet, because it seems they will follow [the miners’] advice [of seeking out other ways of life] instead of [the miners’] lives, [the miners] will experience â€¦ only an increased sense of anguished isolation and the ironic feeling of confused bereavement.
Physical work is always awarding; in each and every case there is something to show or hold in your hands as a result of your efforts. Quite the reverse, the measurement of one’s achievement as regards intellectual work is by principle subjective and fickle, a huge heap of theories without any practical gain in the long run. He regrets that his children fail to comprehend this. “[He] always wished that [his] children could see [him] at work,” so that they might make up their minds about the ways of life to lead, because in all probability every occupation leads to a “kind of inarticulate loneliness” but academic careers miss out on severe natural beauties available only to manual laborers.
This shortage of understanding and the vacuous desires of intellectuality on part of the younger generation open an abyss between the miners and their families at home. A “home” that you have to share with your loved ones who however fail to empathize in the slightest with the beautified burden of physical labor and thus with your work, ultimately with you, cannot be fully yours. The ties that anchored you to them diminish and break fiber by fiber. The differences between the two lifestyles are shocking:
â€¦her entire house [gleams] with porcelain and enamel and an ordered cleanliness that I can no longer comprehend. Little about me and my work is clean or orderly and I am always mildly amazed to find the earnings of the violence and dirt converted into such meticulous brightness.
Furthermore, infrequent visits to home also could not help the widening of the void between husband and wife. They have become “almost as shy strangers â€¦ communicating through ineffectual say-nothing letters or cheques that substitute money for what once was conceived as love.”
The narrator’s isolation has come full circle: he feels inconvenient in his own neatly kept house, he’s turned incommunicado to his uncaring wife and children, and is only at rest in the presence of his fellow miners who know what dramas he has lived through and what hazards he is to face at the coming of fall.
Eventually, clouds start rolling in herded by a southwest wind and damp the last of summer’s sunbeams. Seeing the closing down of summer, the narrator addresses rhetorical questions to himself. “Perhaps this is what we have been waiting for? Perhaps this is the start and the beginning?” The imprints that the miners have left in the sand die away as the strengthening waves lick at the shore. It now seems as though no man has ever set foot in the garden. Climbing the zigzagging trail, he leads his people out of the paradisiacal beach. It is both the beginning end the end, as he proposes. They are stuck in a circle of routines that nevertheless has traces of change, but not those of improvement. It is more like a spiral: they live lives of ineffable burdens that become increasingly harder to endure; they grow more and more distanced from their families who exploit and look down on them; still they go on, because there is a magnificent beauty in what they do.
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