Suspending History

Xiyun Yang, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

More than anything, John McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird is about both the suspension of time and the acute sense of linear history evident on the island of Colonsay. While the island is entrenched in the anachronism of a feudal system, each islander is presented as a particular puzzle piece that only fits into its specific place on Colonsay's historical continuum. When Andrew Oronsay, the bagpiper, is first introduced, McPhee reaches hundreds of years back into Oronsay's abundant reserve of familial history available with just one blow of his bagpipes.

A piper schooled in classical piobaireachd -- or ceol mor, the purest expression of Highland bagpipe music -- can listen to another piper and say accurately who his teachers were and who, in turn, taught the teacher. A Scottish bagpiper might be traced to, say, the Macintyres of Atholl or to the Rankins of Duart and Coll, but he can have among his aesthetic forebears no greater men than the MacCrimmons of Skye, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Macleod. Donald Mor MacCrimmon, born in 1570, taught his son, Patrick Mor MacCrimmon, who taught his son, Patrick Og MacCrimmon . . . who taught John MacDougall Gillies, who taught Robert Reid, who taught Andrew Oronsay.

The intricate relations and histories between the islanders of Colonsay contribute to a collective consciousness. Refering into this sense of historical closeness, McPhee characterizes the actualislandofColonsayas a living and breathing creature at once independent and composed of its residents. The collective pool of unnamed voices that he falls back on to characterize the islanders is the voice of the island of Colonsay.

"Ten minutes, gentlemen."

"The laird is an evil man in several sense of the word."

"As a boy, he took his sweets off and ate them by himself in the woods."

"That, I should say, is characteristic of him today."

"His two brothers and his sister—they shared sweets with other."

In the end, McPhee leaves the island with a grafted sense of history. "One associates with one's ancestors at one"s risk. I will never again be able to look a MacMillan in the eye." In what tone does McPhee end the book? Does he truly mean that he will never be able to look a MacMillan in the eye? How does his end tone contribute to the progression of his view towards the island of Colonsay and his past?

McPhee often jumps without transition between his stories, for example, on page 91, he jumps from the scene in the church to a gruesome confrontation with death. Why does he do this? What effect does this have on the reader? Is it effective?

The Crofter and the Laird is a short book. Why does McPhee present the entire island and history of Colonsay in such a short form? Would it have been more effective had the book been longer and some of the characters and stories more intricate?


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Last modified 17 November 2003