John McPhee, in The Crofter and the Laird, describes life on the island of Colonsay as a temporary member of its society, all the while reminding the reader of his drastically different upbringing and home in New Jersey. He is able to successfully recreate this world on paper by delving into the everyday life of a Colonsay person, assimilating himself and his family into the culture as best he can. However, McPhee does not merely present a personal look into life on the island, but is rather able to provide us with a slew of perspectives, from crofter to laird to old women staying at the inn, bouncing from the native to the non-native's perspective quite skillfully. McPhee is able to do so through a number of literary techniques including extensive dialogues that often highlight various viewpoints and long lists that incorporate minute details. In addition to observing conversations between natives, McPhee also recounts the many interactions he has with individuals on the island, perhaps the most effective way he clearly illustrates what the Colonsay native and life on the island are like. For example, when conversing with the doctor about his accident, McPhee is able to provide an understanding of the Colonsay people that he does not spell out directly, but that he rather gathers from the doctor's perspective:
The doctor says that this story is extraordinary only in that no one saw him. It is now a week since the accident, and he said this morning, from under a cap of gauze, "This is the only event I know of, since I've been here, that no one witnessed. They're an extremely observant people here. You can't go out without someone noticing it and recording it in their minds." [p. 48]
As this passage illustrates, McPhee does not merely make assumptions and draw his own conclusions about islanders and their mannerisms, but rather makes an effort to approach the issue from all angles, talking to many individuals to observe a number of perspectives. The very title, The Crofter and the Laird, indicates that this piece is not about a personal experience and perspective, but that throughout, McPhee will provide varying and countering views on the same subject matter. Thus, by providing these ranging view points, McPhee is able to assume a position similar to that of the all-knowing sage. Furthermore, this thoughtful approach provides McPhee with a great deal of ethos as a writer and enables him to go off on his own tangents of description and observation while still maintaining the reader's trust. For example, after describing the doctor's perspective on the Colonsay people, McPhee adds:
Colonsay is less like a small town than like a large lifeboat. By a scale of things that begins with cities and runs to hamlets, the island is some distance off the end. The usual frictions, gossip, and intense social espionage that characterize life in a small town are so grandly magnified on Colonsay that they sometimes appear in surprising form, in the way that patches of skin magnified a hundred diameters may appear to be landscapes of the moon. Air and water, sea and sky, life is imploded upon the people here by the blue bottle that surrounds them. Everyone is many things to everyone else, and is encountered daily in a dozen guises. Enmeshed together, the people of the island become one another. [pp. 48-49]
This vivid description and imagery is yet another way in which McPhee enriches his prose. Not only does his interaction with the Colonsay people provide the reader with an in-depth understanding of this region, but McPhee's rich images go on to capture the layered quality of these people's relationships, providing us with a comprehensive and unbiased look at island life.
Does McPhee's voice change throughout the text as he bounces from interactions with various individuals to detailed description? How is his voice like that of a reporter? how is it not? Does his maintain a distanced quality throughout?
Why does McPhee scatter his text with long lists of detailed names and objects? For example he provides the names of various places on Colonsay in an extensive list that is roughly three pages long. Are these lists organized in any particular way and what is the purpose of providing the reader with such minute details? Do these lists attach the reader or are they meant to incorporate us further into island life?
McPhee also provides a great deal of unattributed dialogue in The Crofter and the Laird. Does this writing technique strengthen his ethos? How does the fact that the speakers of these conversations are often not identified further add to the image of the Colonsay native?
When McPhee kills Calum McAllister's chicken, McAllister responds to his attempts to pay him back by saying, "You can pay if you like, but the chicken should not have been in the road." How does this response reflect the mentality of these people? Why are such scenes in which McPhee interacts directly with the natives important to the text overall?
McPhee illustrates the viewpoints of both crofter and laird by interacting with McNeill and Strathcona. Does he seem to side or identify with either of these men? Are his views on the way in which Colonsay is run ever made clear? Does he support the laird system?
Last modified 10 November 2003