No Great Mischief: A Novel
|Publisher:||W. W. Norton & Company|
In 1779 Calum MacDonald set sail in exile from the Highlands of Scotland with his wife and twelve children, along with the dog who would not be left behind and swam after the departing boat. After a catastrophic crossing he landed in the New World at Cape Breton, by which time he had become a widower and a grandfather.
Two hundred years later, another MacDonald tells the story of coming of age in that same bleak Cape Breton landscape. Alexander is orphaned by a cruel accident on the ice, and his yearning for connection with family produces two of the most vivid narrative strands: a summer spent in the mines with his wild older brothers that ends in murder and, much later, his tender care for one of those brothers, now a dying alcoholic. The first lesson Alexander learns from his grandmother is “Always look after your blood.” But, as revealed in the elegant twining of this tale, blood and history are all but inescapable for the MacDonalds. The brothers still speak Gaelic to each other; legends lurk at the edge of the simplest conversation; language and music are themselves links to a heroic, defeated past.
For the MacDonalds, the past is not a foreign country. This Cape Breton clan may have lived in the New World since 1779, when Calum Ruadh (“the red Calum”) and his wife, 12 children, and dog landed. Scotland, however, remains their true home. So profound is their connection to their lost land that on brief visits they find themselves welcomed by strangers. When one descendent tells a Scotswoman that she’s from Canada, she is offered a gentle rejoinder: “That may be…. But you are really from here. You have just been away for a while.” In some ways this is unsurprising, since the MacDonalds either have deep black hair or their ancestor’s coloring. And those with the latter have “eyes that were so dark as to be beyond brown and almost in the region of glowing black. Such individuals would manifest themselves as strikingly unfamiliar to some, and as eerily familiar to others.” Another sport of nature? Many are fraternal twins, including Alistair MacLeod’s narrator, Alexander, and his sister.
But No Great Mischief is far more than the straightforward saga of one family over the generations. Instead the author has created a painfully beautiful myth in which the long-ago is in many ways more present than modern existence. Even in the last decades of the 20th century, the MacDonalds fall into Gaelic—its inflections, rhythms, and song—with deep nostalgia. This is a family that is used to composing itself in the face of disaster. They often assure one another, “My hope is constant in thee,” and in the light of their many losses, the clan must cling to its motto.
No Great Mischief begins with Alexander’s visit to Toronto, where his eldest brother now subsists on a diet of drink and memories. The narrator, a successful orthodontist, doesn’t have much to do with the former but is unable (or unwilling) to escape the latter. As the novel proceeds, Alexander fills in his family history, including such key episodes as his great-great-grandfather’s self-exile from Scotland. Though Calum Ruadh had intended to leave his dog behind, it broke away and tried to catch up with him. MacLeod piercingly captures the animal’s struggle as her master first tries to make her head for shore and then—realizing she won’t desert him—spurs her on. Throughout No Great Mischief various people recall this incident, an emblem of intensity, hope, and dependence. A descendant of the bitch is also on hand when Alexander’s parents and one of his brothers disappear under the ice on a cold spring night. She persists in searching for her people and tries to protect their lighthouse from the new keeper, receiving in return “four bullets into her loyal waiting heart.” When Alexander’s grandfather hears of her death, he uses a phrase that becomes one of the book’s litanies, “It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard.”
This is a MacDonald characteristic as well. A good deal of No Great Mischief‘s strength stems from scenes of longing and despair—for those who die for a lost cause, whether in 1692 when one leader is killed (“the redness of his hair dyed forever brighter by the crimson of his blood”) or in an Ontario uranium mine where one brother is decapitated. MacLeod evokes his clan, and the elemental beauty of their landscape, in quiet, precise language that gains power with each repetition. (A sentence such as “All of us are better when we’re loved” comes to acquire a near proverbial ring.) If he occasionally tips his hand too much, pressing home his point that present-day prosperity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, no matter. I doubt that this inspired and elegiac novel will ever leave those who are lucky enough to read it—proving after all the persistence of the clann Chalum Ruaidh. —Kerry Fried