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Fiction Cultural Heritage

Cape Breton Road

by (author) D.R. Macdonald

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Dec 2001
Cultural Heritage, Family Life, Small Town & Rural
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2001
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 14 to 18
  • Grade: 9 to 12


At nineteen, Innis Corbett is transplanted from his home near Boston and suddenly finds himself back in the remote Cape Breton community where he was born, the reluctant and unwelcome guest of his uncle Starr. Innis had developed an addiction for stealing expensive cars (not for money but for pleasure) and for the marijuana he helps his best friend to sell. When bad habits catch up with him, he is deported to Canada, a punishment worse than prison.

Innis is unimpressed by his uncle, who gave up his dreams of leaving the island to repair televisions, chase women, drive a Lada and grow nostalgic on rum. Desperate to get away, Innis hatches the only escape plan he can, and starts to grow a secret cash crop of marijuana and looks for a car to steal. He bides his time smoking pot and doing whatever odd jobs he has to, full of unnamed need and pent-up anger. When Starr’s current girlfriend, an attractive woman in her late thirties, comes to stay while fleeing another relationship, Innis’ deep sense of longing fixes on her. He feels fierce desire, but also something he recognises as good and true. Starr cautions him, and a bitter jealous rivalry begins to rage between them, violence lying just under the surface. As summer arrives, Innis’ suffocation and the tension between the two men are palpable.

Though life in this small community bound by memory and blood cannot cure Innis immediately of his anger, the rugged landscape does work a change on him. He takes on the challenge of the wild and harsh north woods where a man can get lost, learns the names of plants and wildlife, sketches and studies the natural world, and diligently cares for his illegal seedlings. As he grows stronger, he faces himself in the mirror and feels an emerging sense of self-worth and coming manhood. He realises he is learning an enjoyment of hard work and its rewards, although his crop might be less worthy than those of his predecessors. Affectionately sheltering the plants from bad weather and hungry deer, he muses, “Was there a Gaelic word for pot?”

Cape Breton has spawned a wealth of contemporary literature, from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees to Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief and Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven. The region’s rugged landscapes, rural life and distinctive Gaelic traditions converging with modern social pressures have captured the attention of readers internationally; as they have in the work of other Atlantic Canada authors such as Michael Crummey, Wayne Johnston and David Adams Richards. MacDonald set his novel in the 1970s, when a country area of Cape Breton could still be a truly isolated backwater, the phone service on a party-line system and listening-in a regular pastime. “I needed to create a world that was much more cut off, where it would seem like exile to Innis and where he could never be alone or anonymous.”

Innis recalls his parents’ fights about “down home”, how they would one day love it to tears and the next day complain how it had held them back. Much as he wants to get off the Cape Breton Road, it may be that all the emotions that make life worth living — “love and anger and disappointment and hope” — lead back to the island. Cape Breton Road is a compelling coming-of-age story raw with beauty and emotion.

About the author

D. R. MacDONALD was born in Cape Breton and grew up mostly in the United States. He has received two Pushcart Prizes, an Ingram Merrill Award and an O. Henry Award for his short fiction. His first novel, Cape Breton Road, received critical acclaim and became a national bestseller. His second novel, Lauchlin Of The Bad Heart, was longlisted for the Giller Prize, while Anna From Away was shortlisted for the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction. MacDonald is a lecturer emeritus at Stanford University and spends his summers in Boularderie, Nova Scotia, in a renovated barn on family property.

D.R. Macdonald's profile page

Excerpt: Cape Breton Road (by (author) D.R. Macdonald)

The power line cut like a firebreak through the wooded ridge and Innis could follow it easily now, his private road, could take it a long way beyond his uncle's boundary and cross, unseen here in the upland, other people's woods, veering down into them when something caught his eye. The afternoon was growing colder under a lazy snowfall and he captured on his tongue the cool taste of a downy flake. He carried a bucksaw loosely in one hand, in the other his walking stick that beat snow out of boughs, showed him snow depth, ice thinness, heard but unseen water, and if he found himself without the stick, he would retrace his steps in a crouch until he saw where he had set it down, distracted by something he wanted to inspect-tracks, a bush, a hole in the snow that said an animal lives here. Back in his uncle's woods he'd been thinning young spruce, improving a clearing well above the power line, the spot he had staked out in the fall for his own seedlings. Starr never went up in the trees anymore, would never know what went on there, one way or the other. For what Innis had in mind, summer light in that clearing would do. And it would, by fall, light his way out of here, though at the moment collas swaying in the sun were not easy to conjure.

His tracks were filling so quickly he could barely see how he'd meandered along the break. He liked his tracks to dip into the lower trees, then out again, a snaking trail someone might follow, looking for whatever creature was at the end of it. Overhead, the power line, two widely spaced cables, sagged gracefully toward a wooden pylon visible on the next rise, then disappeared into the snowgreyed air. If he were to follow it in that direction, east for maybe an hour, he could hit the TransCanada highway and thumb down a car or a semi the way he had last October. People still hitched in this part of the world, even women. But he was not ready for it. He was not a prisoner after all, except to himself, but he knew now the ride out would have to be a long one, all westward. He hadn't the nerve yet to go it alone in this country, though he would never admit that to Starr, not for a second. He had once wished for nothing but to be back in the streets of Watertown, of Boston better yet, but that city, that whole country down there, was closed to him now, forbidden-a hurt he woke to some days like a bruise in his chest. With some real bucks in his pocket, he kept telling himself, he would find his way maybe to Montreal or Toronto, even all the way to Vancouver, cities big enough to start over in. But last night when he'd looked at a map in Starr's old atlas, Canada's vastness disheartened him, diffusing him into its indefinite spaces, unmoored and anonymous, a nobody.

Now the snow whirled down, gently blinding him in the grey light, and he was weary of this relentless season. A hatred for North St. Aubin seized him so strongly he nearly fell to his knees. That ragged skyline of thick spruce wherever he looked, one little store with a gas pump. March in Watertown could be nasty, sure, but winter wasn't nailed down like this. Pot plants growing in these woods? A pipedream. In the deep wall of trees below him he saw a few different evergreens, a small grove, stately, fuller, and when he took a branch in his hand and shook it free of snow and felt the long needles like coarse hair, he knew it was a pine, a Scotch pine. A soft swirl of wind soughed through it, a timbre he never heard in the other needled trees. In all his trampings he had come across but a single pine, a white pine hidden in spruce, so old its crown was out of sight. Christmas presents had this smell on them when he was a kid, his mother urging him to tear them open when he tried to save the pretty paper, to hell with it, never mind, she'd say, but he'd liked the figures on the wrapping, the designs. They'd had no Christmas, he and his uncle, Starr said it was mushy, the whole sentimental business, and he spent Christmas day and night in Sydney with some woman, clear of any duties toward or expectations from his nephew boarder. Innis's mother had always wanted Scotch pine for Christmas. So how about this fifteen-footer, Mom? I'll ship it to you, you can save it for next year, I won't be there to haul it up the stairs but your boyfriend can do the honors. He ducked under its branches, snow trembling down his neck as the saw ripped into bark, the blade pungent with resin, sawdust dribbling into the wooly snow like cornmeal, and when the tree fell away from him with a hiss, he drew back and inhaled the turpentine smell. Resin. Jesus, it jacked him up, like that other resin he loved to smoke. He stood panting, snow in his eyelashes, his hair. His back muscles burned, water trickled cool then warm along his spine, over the chill of sweat. The pine lay humbled against the snow. But his angry exhilaration faded with every smoky breath, the satisfaction seared through him so fast he didn't know what made him do it, just take it down like that. When he heard the faint squeak of footsteps behind him, he thought first, it's getting colder, the snow is noisy, and then his mind was already racing toward a lie.

"God, if my dad wasn't near ninety, he'd kill you." The man stood planted like a stout child dressed up and sent out into the snow, his big mittened hands at his sides. His face was flushed beneath the brim of a green stocking cap. "He'll have the Mounties on you, boy, and that's the least of it."

Innis picked up the bucksaw he'd flung down: Starr's name was carved into the handle, and Starr would be wild anyway if Mounties showed up at the door. Well I knew you'd bring them sooner or later, you have this thing with the police, eh?

"These trees yours?" Innis hated the boyish supplication in his voice, the register it always rose to when he'd been caught. "I didn't see any signs or anything. I figured they were just anybody's."

The man swung his weight slowly about as if he wore snowshoes, not heavy galoshes. "Trees are always somebody's," he said. "You can't come into our woods with a saw in your hand. You haven't the right, you see."

Don't get in trouble like you did in Boston, Starr told him when he first set foot in the house. There's not the chance, b'y, for one. And for another, they'll put you away so quick you'll think you'd never been here.

"I only cut the one," Innis said.

"For what?" The man lifted the pine by its tip like a dead animal.

"Listen, I'll pay you, whatever you think it's worth."

The man didn't seem to hear. "Only stand of trees like this on the whole goddamn island," he said. He touched the oozing tree stump, then sniffed his glove. "Where you from? Not from here, are you. I can tell by your talk."

Innis wanted to tell him I am from here, I left here a baby and my folks are from here clean back to my great-grandfathers. But he didn't feel the truth of that, it was just what he had been told, and when you were seized in the act, it was not the time to open up a genealogical cupboard the man could rummage in. Like it or not, you're a Corbett, Starr told him. You don't have to care about that, I can't make you. But I care. Your great-grandpa built this house. Don't shame it.

"Sydney," he said. He'd been into Sydney twice with Starr, the big town, malls and all.

"Who do you belong to? I know all kinds of people in Sydney."

"You wouldn't know mine."

"But your name, what's your name?"

"MacAskill." Innis knew there were no MacAskills in North St. Aubin.

"You Englishtown MacAskills? North River?"

"No. We haven't lived here very long."

"Queer place to be cutting down a tree, if you live forty miles away. What did you mean by it?"

"How the hell did you know I was up here?"

"My dad," the man said. "Finlay,' he said to me, somebody is at the trees.' He always knows when somebody's in the woods what don't belong."

Editorial Reviews

“A book of heart-stopping beauty. D.R. MacDonald is an exceptional writer.” – Alistair MacLeod

Cape Breton Road tells the story of Innis, a young man deported from his home in the United States for car theft and returned to his mother’s birthplace on Cape Breton Island to stay with his uncle Starr. Their relationship, fragile to begin with, is threatened by the arrival of Claire, who, romantically involved with Starr and on the run from a previous relationship, moves in with the two men. In lesser hands, this situation could have been mined for simple domestic drama, but MacDonald has his sights set higher. Cape Breton Road functions, on one level, as a suspense novel, the tension of the domestic situation building slowly and inexorably. It is also solidly a novel of place, vividly evoking the Cape Breton landscape, its people, and its culture. Most significantly, the novel is an exploration of Innis’s mind and slow-building maturity, of guilt and history, of belief and escape, of dreams lost and sacrificed. With an almost alchemical talent, MacDonald transmutes the domestic and regional to the stuff of myth, of archetypal richness.” – Quill & Quire, starred review

“This is mature work, aged in the cask, of a writer who has spent a lifetime studying his craft. Cape Breton Road is bold, complex, yet as nearly flawless as they come — a golden novel, worth its wait.” – The Toronto Star

“MacDonald’s handling of the book’s central relationship is beautifully judged, and his depiction of character sharp and full of humour. No less powerful is the author’s evocation of the Canadian landscape against which the tragi-comic events of his story unfold. Dangerous and enticing, it is as much a player in this vivid drama as its human characters.” – The Times

“The landscape of Cape Breton Road is no mere backdrop: it’s beautiful, dangerous and, like our young car thief, worth getting to know. MacDonald loves language as much as he loves landscape… It's gorgeous, muscular writing... MacDonald's language lifts the story of Innis Corbett, makes it shimmer. He's got a great voice.” – The Globe and Mail

“...a compelling coming-of-age story raw with the beauty and loneliness that MacDonald, a native of Cape Breton Island, captures brilliantly.” – Newark Star-Ledger
Cape Breton Road has more than its share of suspense and erotic electricity. At the same time, however, it's an elegy to a fading way of life, and a portrait of landscape where nature is so fiercely uncompromising that it takes on a spectral, sinister force of its own.” –

“With its perfect sentences, its engraver's portrait of this little-known enclave in North America, and its remarkable penetration of the troubled inner life of young Innis Corbett, it is that rarest of novels, one so vivid, so fully imagined that its reality overtakes your own during the time you are reading. Eros and crime and the inscrutability of a secluded people combine to lend a tantalizing atmosphere of cool suspense, so that the destiny of Innis is as much a mystery to us as it is to him. This is a flat-out great book.” – Scott Turow

“a jewel of literary craftsmanship” – Washington Post Book World

“magnificent and long overdue… The storm clouds mount between nephew and uncle with the inevitability and steadily rising stakes of classical tragedy, and when they burst, the climax is like one of Shakespeare’s catastrophes… This is a mature work, aged in the cask, of a writer who has spend a lifetime studying his craft… Cape Breton Road is bold, complex, yet as nearly flawless as they come – a golden novel, worth its wait.” – The Toronto Star

“Cape Breton Road is a very accomplished first novel. The characters are quirky and alive, the sense of place is strong and the family connections that Innis slowly comes to feel with his ancestors and history are nicely handled.” – CBC “Definitely Not The Opera”

Praise for Eyestone
“These stories are breathtaking. The writing is stunning – beautiful in a quiet, poised way, without the loop-the-loops or jackhammer metaphors.” – Scott Turow

“Astonishingly vivid… These tales possess the integrity of life itself.” – Publishers Weekly

“These are stories about something, with people and feelings. They last in the mind, and if there is any justice, they could last on the shelf and in the tradition.” – Wallace Stegner

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