Thanksgiving is a holiday of homecoming for many Americans, but that homecoming may be fraught or joyous: the home of our childhood can be a place we have fled, or a place to which we return for solace and completion.
There are few authors who have written as deeply about the tangled relationships adults can have with the communities of their childhoods than the late Canadian short story master Alastair MacLeod. MacLeod’s stories dwell on the themes of opportunities gained and connections lost by leaving one’s childhood community behind.
Set for the most part on Cape Breton Island, MacLeod’s heroes are young men who leave remote communities behind to pursue education and opportunities, often to become teachers or college professors (as MacLeod himself did)—only to find that they cannot break with their childhood communities. While MacLeod sets his stories in the Canadian Maritimes, his themes far transcend their parochial Maritime setting.
MacLeod’s storytelling has no “lesson” about whether it is better to leave behind and renounce one’s childhood community or to continue to dwell there.
In MacLeod’s earliest story—The Boat—a Midwestern college professor looks back on his vow to give up his plans for higher education in order to be a fisherman alongside his ailing father:
And then there came into my heart a very great love for my father and I thought it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations. And I knew then that I could never leave him alone…
MacLeod’s story unfolds how this youth came to reverse his plan and leave for college, eventually to become a professor—and makes it seem clear that leaving behind a fishing life in a remote community has been for the best.
But other stories show how, for some, the richness of small and remote communities, however parochial, is choiceworthy. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood tells of a different American professor who returns to a fishing village to see the now ten-year-old son he fathered when he was an ambitious graduate student collecting Maritime ballads in order to study their linguistic qualities:
And perhaps now I should go and say, oh son of my summa cum laude loins, come away from the lonely gulls and the silver trout and I will take you to the land of the Tastee Freeze where you may sleep till ten of nine. And I will show you the elevator to the apartment on the sixteenth floor and introduce you to the buzzer system. . . . Or may I offer you the money that is the fruit of my collecting and of my most successful life?
In the end, he leaves his son behind in the remote fishing village—not because he still sees that village patronizingly as a repository of quaint linguistic specimens to be collected but because his son can have a rich life there, while his learned city life is marked by trivialities like Tastee Freeze, gadgets, and mere pursuit of wealth.
How the communities of our childhood bind and shape us is important to philanthropists, perhaps especially to philanthropists who have risen from ordinary circumstances to great wealth. Much contemporary philanthropy trends to “global philanthropy” that aspires to have an impact on locales distant from the philanthropist’s home. This may seem more sophisticated than philanthropy directed toward one’s current or childhood community—and yet these communities may be the ones that we understand best and to which we have the greatest obligations. MacLeod’s wonderful stories encourage us to think about how to think about homecomings and our ties to our childhood communities.
This original Philanthropy Daily story was first published on Nov. 26, 2014. It has been re-published more recently since then.