Wednesday, 14 November 2012

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

Generations after their forebears went into exile, the MacDonalds still face seemingly unmitigated hardships and cruelties of life. Alexander, orphaned as a child by a horrific tragedy, has nevertheless gained some success in the world. Even his older brother, Calum, a nearly destitute alcoholic living on Toronto's skid row, has been scarred by another tragedy. But, like all his clansman, Alexander is sustained by a family history that seems to run through his veins. And through these lovingly recounted stories-wildly comic or heartbreakingly tragic-we discover the hope against hope upon which every family must sometimes rely.

About the Author

Alistair MacLeod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. When he was ten his family moved to a farm in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. After completing high school, MacLeod attended teacher's college in Truro and then taught school. He studied at St. Francis Xavier University between 1957 and 1960 and graduated with a BA and B.Ed. He then went on to receive his MA in 1961 from the University of New Brunswick and his PhD in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame.

A specialist in British literature of the nineteenth century, Alistair MacLeod taught English for three years at the University of Indiana before accepting a post in 1969 at the University of Windsor as professor of English and Creative Writing. He and his family return to Cape Breton every summer, however, where he spends part of his time "writing in a cliff-top cabin looking west towards Prince Edward Island."

Alistair MacLeod's writing career has been quite remarkable in earning him a great critical reputation on the basis of only fourteen short stories, collected in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986).

In 1999, he published his first novel, No Great Mischief, which follows the lives of several generations of a family that emigrates from Scotland to Cape Breton Island the setting of many of MacLeod's short stories. Written over the course of thirteen years, No Great Mischief was published to great critical acclaim and has been translated into a number of different languages. Nominated for all of Canada's major literary awards, the novel was awarded the Trillium Award, the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Dartmouth Book & Writing Award for Fiction, the Atlantic Provinces Booksellers Choice Award, the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

All of his published short stories, plus one new piece, were collected in Island, published in 2000.

His works are considered among the very best Canada has produced in the twentieth century.

The Quill and Quire 
The Observer

McClelland Publishing


  1. One Fireside Readers’ member provided a brief history of the Celts across Europe and how the Celts and Picts eventually evolved into the nation that is known as the Scots. As well, he demonstrated Irish Gaelic in word and in song. It was a wonderful beginning to our discussion of No Great Mischief.
    This is a very Canadian novel, the story of immigrants rooted in Scottish and family history, confronted with the challenges of a new land and conflicting immigrant cultures. The structure of the novel was deemed ‘very Canadian’ as well, flashing back and forth between the old country, recent history and the present. In fact, the author achieved a seamless layering of the periods as if they all existed simultaneously and, for the MacDonald clan, that was the way it was. Culloden and Calum Ruadh remained present in their minds. The red-haired Wolfe fought for the British at Battle of Culloden and at the Battle on the Plains of Abraham, he sent the Highlanders to the front lines for "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall." At Culloden, the French whose boats did not arrive to save the day, were the ‘friends’ of the Scots; on the Plains, the French were the enemy. These defeats, betrayals and triumphs are woven through the fabric of the daily lives of the Cape Breton MacDonalds.
    The language used is poetic and beautiful; the images created are vivid and authentic. The novel is not densely descriptive; the author infers rather than tells. The MacDonald clan is steeped in stories - some hilarious, others tragic. The values of clan honour, family and tradition depicted in the Gaelic poems, stories and songs form the bedrock of their lives. Why is language so important? It is the currency of the storyteller, the means by which he sells his tale. Language is valued too as the means to preserve and understand history. Grandpa is the story teller, Grandfather, the historian.

  2. Many of us felt drawn to the culture. A number of members are the children or grandchildren of Scottish immigrants and were able to describe the Scots’ pride and the clannishness of their own families. There is romanticism to the culture. In addition, there is a dark side to the hard-drinking culture that the author skirts. Grandpa is very often drunk and does foolish things which put his life at risk. Often those harmless kitchen parties can turn into brawls, women and children can be abused, yet it is seen as a bit of harmless fun. We do not know the nature of the “trail of various offences from various jurisdictions” cited at Calum’s arraignment, but they were enough to have the Crown Attorney state that Calum “had a violent past and was a violent man.”
    The characters that we come to know are Alexander, the narrator, and his oldest brother, Calum. The other brothers remain nameless and the older generations are only identified by their roles or relationships: ‘our mother’, ‘my twin sister’. Alexander MacDonald is the ubiquitous, floating family name - the author’s, the name of the cousin killed in the mine, the name lent to the American cousin avoiding the draft. It is the cloak of identity for very different men.
    This seemingly simple tale of family appears on the surface to be straightforward, even ordinary. It is deceptive in the way that the title is deceptive, for it was “great mischief” that occurred, and when Calum fell, it was the end of a way of life, a code of honour, a mythology. ‘Young” Alexander MacDonald could never love family and the land as his older brother had done.
    No Great Mischief is a beautifully written, poetic novel that doesn’t have a plot as much as it has a series of themes explored.