Alexander Macdonald had many obsessions regarding his past that he was unable to escape from. The first, and probably most significant loss that Alexander never got over was the loss of his parents and eldest brother off the ice-covered waters of Cape Breton. Alexander is forced to grow up with his sister and grandmother and grandfather, throughout his life he is always yearning for his lost parents. Secondly in the back of Alexander's mind and a source of great motivation are his ancestral clan men who were exiled from the Scottish Highlands only to find that Canada was an even harder place to make a living than Scotland was. The third thing that bothers Alexander Macdonald is through historic tales from his grandfather Alexander learns of the betrayal of his clansmen in 1746. Thousands of Highlanders were slaughtered at the battle of Culloden because General Wolfe used them as front-line troops to overcome the French because it was "No Great Mischief if they fell".
Although Alexander does not say outright that this abuse of his ancestors outraged him he does say he knows that he is lucky to be alive and that he knows he was lucky to be born and have the opportunities that his ancestors did not.
Dr.Ainslie is a very successful doctor who takes care of the miners of Cape Breton. Dr. Ainslie is obsessed with his past throughout his life. Although the author chooses not tell the reader until later in the book that Dr. Ainslie is disturbed by something that happened to him as a child his motivation for what he does in his life afterwards becomes obvious. When Dr. Daniel Ainslie was a child his family lived on a farm and was very poor.