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The life of a miner is a solitary one. Having to endure extreme physical labor, receiving naught but scorn from society for lack of intellect , the miners withdraw into their own small world and mentally seclude themselves from society, just as they are secluded from it physically while working underground. In Alistair MacLeod's The Cosing Down of Summer, through the narrator we catch a glimpse of the life of the MacKinnon crew and its members. Theirs is a life of physical and mental torture, a life that makes them unable to relate to even their closest relatives, a life of complete isolation.
The story opens with the beach in summer in a remote part of Cape Breton. The miners lie on the shore bathing in the last rays of sunlight, before the August gale arrives to signal the end of summer and the end of their freedom. The narrator talks about this particular summer being especially hot and the record number of tourists, which the warm weather brought to Nova Scotia, who now occupy its beaches all around. Yet, there is a little beach on Cape Breton's West Coast, where there are absolutely no tourists. This beach is the miners' land, they are the only ones who know about it, and they are the only ones occupying it. Not even the officials know that it exists. Even though the miners don't need to work at the moment, and we know that they are close to home, they are not with their families. Rather, they are together during the absence of work, isolated from the outside world even when they don't have to be. They have been so distanced from their own families that they'd rather seek each other's company than their relatives'.
When the narrator talks about his wife, he mentions her as "having gone permanently into a world of avocado appliances and household cleanliness and vicarious experiences provided by the interminable soap operas that fill her television afternoons." (245) Furthermore "her kitchen and her laundry room and her entire house gleam with porcelain and enamel and an ordered cleanliness" (244) that he, the narrator can "no longer comprehend". Instead, he is used to two-by-four bunks, sleeping in a room with other men, listening to "the sounds of men snoring and coughing or spitting into cans by their bedsides, the incoherent moans and mumbles of uneasy sleepers and the thuds of half-conscious men making groaning love to their passive pillows." Two contrasting pictures indeed. Therefore it is not surprising that he describes his relationship with his wife as feeling like strangers to one another. He calls the house "her house" several times even though he is the one who probably paid for its raising and contents. When he deems it his, he calls it his "own white house". Here the word "white" refers not merely to the house's color but to the connotation of purity and cleanliness. Also, the color white is not like red or brown (colors radiating warmth) but a cold color. This implies distance and lack of comfort on the part of the miner, towards his house and the things in it. The "white" house represents the part of himself that is still fit to be a part of an ordered, clean, normal society. The less comfortable he feels in his home, the more he is distanced from every "normal" person around him, including his family members.
The narrator has also grown apart from his children. Though there are seven of them, he has never been at home for any of their births, or the deaths of the two of them, his work had always kept him away. His children go to school and study to become office workers, while he, himself dropped out of college, according to him, because he felt physically confined. His children will know physical work as only a part of exercise and sports, not as result of intense labor, like their father's. In fact, they will look down on him for his lack of intellect, regard him as one of lesser knowledge, even though he knows not less, just an entirely different field.
I have always wished that my children could see me at my work (â€¦) And that they might see how articulate we are in the accoplishment of what we do. That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculation of our angles and the measurin of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment. (249)
Here, he is once again expressing frustration at being looked down on by his children, whereas he is just as much an expert in his work as any other person is in his, who is 'properly' employed. He would love to show them that there is a "certain eloquent beauty" in what he does too but he will never be able to do so, for his world is that of the secret world of miners that no ordinary civilian gets to see. His wife's and his sons' every day life is based on permanence and security, while the miner's life is full of risk and danger: everything is temporary. (Lepaludier) This fundamental difference keeps the miner and his family from ever truly connecting.
Mining, because of its physicality is something ancient. It is suggested in the story that the number of miners is steadily decreasing, either by accidents ("Once there was also the O'Leary crew, who were Irish Newfoundlanders. But many of them were lost in a cave-in in India") or because the children of the current miners are studying to become dentists and lawyers, so they will be unable to replace their fathers. The century old miner families are no more. They diminish in the modern times, along with other ancient things, such as the Gaelic language: "For all of us know we will not last much longer and that it is unlikely we will be replaced in the shaft's bottom by members of our own flesh and bone. For such replacement, like our Gaelic, seems to be of the past and now largely over."(248) In the narrator's mind, Gaelic and mining are connected. They are both remnants of the past, which are dying out. As a young man, the narrator thought he did not speak Gaelic, yet, as he becomes older, (and more and more seperated from society by his work) he realizes how many Gaelic words he learned in his childhood. In fact, Gaelic is what the miners usually speak now when they are in each other's company: "Now in the shafts and on the beach we speak it almost constantly, though it is no longer spoken in our homes"(246). The archaism of the Gaelic tongue symbolizes the archaism of the miner's life. The Gaelic songs, however, provide a different connection.
The temporariness of miner life is hard to bear, and the individuals are in constant want of something to balance it out. The permanence and security of their families cannot be sought out, because they have grown too far apart. Instead, permanence is found in the Gaelic songs, tales and ballads, which go as far back as the 15th century. These, the miners learned in their childhood, they sing them at home, on the beach, while going to work, while workingâ€¦ The Gaelic songs are a link to the past, and since they are so unchanging, having had the same melody and words for centuries, they represent something eternal and constitute the permanence that the miners need. (Lepaludier)
There is a new "Celtic Revival" in schools according to the narrator, so the narrator's children are also learning some Gaelic traditions. The miners' chorus is invited to sing at the school but when they do so, the song feels like "everything that song should not be, contrived and artificial and non-spontaneous and lacking in communication." (246) And this is what their children will learn. They will sing the same songs but they will lack the meaning behind it, for they will spend their lives sitting in offices shuffling papers, excercising their mouths instead of their limbs and will understand none of what the songs are about. In other words, the children will never understand an essential part of their fathers' lives.
The question is: would any person willingly choose such a lonely and dangerous lifestyle? Alistair MacLeod answers us by showing that becoming a miner is not a choice, it is hereditary. The narrator drops out of college because he comes from a family of miners, so he is genetically 6 feet tall and thus, he feels confined in school. So, he takes his work and the solitude it brings with a melancholic acceptance: it is granted to him by fate, he does not regret it but neither does he appreciate it. This is what has to be and this is what will be. The miner's life is an isolated journey with death always lingering nearby and The Closing Down of Summer grants us a superbly bitter insight into the sad, yet at the same time strangely beautiful world of these incredible people.
The mines consume their whole lives.