No Great Mischief
by Alistair MacLeod (1999)
Vintage (2001)
304 pp

Other than a Margaret Atwood here and there, and a few other names who came by way of the Booker Prize, I’m not sure I’d read much Canadian fiction before meeting Kevin from Canada. But boy has it been great over the past few years to dig into that country’s rich literature both through the Giller Prize and through Kevin’s blog that covers quite a bit of new Canadian literature. One of the best discoveries for me has been Alistair MacLeod (I’ve already reviewed the debut collection of short stories by Alistair’s son Alexander, Light Liftinghere). A few years ago, on Kevin’s recommendation, I went and purchased all of Alistair MacLeod’s books — both of them. One is Islands, one of the best collections of short stories I have ever read (I’m still not finished because I’ll be pretty sad when I have no more of his work to read). The other is this one, MacLeod’s only novel, No Great Mischief.

MacLeod writes beautifully of Canada’s Cape Breton (which was, incidentally, the setting of The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre’s Giller Prize winner, the year Alistair MacLeod was on the jury (we on the Shadow Giller that year also thought it was the winning book)). It was a pleasure to get back into that cold, lonely land by the sea in this quiet book.

When the book opens, we meet our narrator Alexander MacDonald as he’s visiting his ailing older brother Calum. Alexander is a successful dentist in his mid-50s, but we get a sense that Calum is quite a bit older and decidedly less successful. It turns out Calum is around 15 years older than Alexander. Partially because of that age gap, they had remarkably different childhoods which led to remarkably different lives. Events have created a strong intimacy between them, but it would be wrong to call them particularly close. They share a storied heritage and a couple of formative tragedies.

As Alexander narrates, he takes us back a few hundred years to when their first ancestor, Calum Ruadh — ruadhfor his red hair, which Alexander shares — came to the Cape from Scotland. The story lives in the MacDonald blood: how Calum tried to leave the dog behind but that beast just jumped in and swam to their boat, how his wife died on the passage, and how his grave now occupies an outcropping that is falling bit by bit into the sea:

He was never a married man in the new country and that is, perhaps, why his grave seems doubly lonely, set as it is on the farthest jutting headland that points out to the sea, where it is caught by all of the many varying winds. Most of his children are buried in the early “official” graveyards beside their wives and husbands and sometimes, in the larger plots, surrounded by their own children and children’s children as well. Families in death, as they were in life. But Calum Ruadh is buried all alone, apparently where he wanted to be, marked only by a large boulder with the hand-chiseled letters which give his name and dates and the simple Gaelic line: Fois do t’anam. Peace to his soul.

It’s been a couple of hundred years, but when we slip into Alexander’s childhood in the middle of the twentieth century, we get the sense that not much has changed in Cape Breton in the passing years. The families are still subjected to the bitter climate and the whims of the sea. The turbulence of life hasn’t settled much, but neither has the family, which has grown in the generations, stopped caring for itself and coming together to tighten their bonds, something actually facilitated in the winter when the bodies of water froze and it became easier to travel.

Also in the winter their social life improved, as unexpected visitors crossed to see them, bringing rum and beer and fiddles and accordions. All of them staying up all night, singing songs and dancing and playing cards and telling stories, while out on the ice seals moaned and cried and the ice itself thundered and snapped and sometimes groaned, forced by the pressures of the tides and currents, running unabated and unseen beneath the cold white surface.

Alexander and his twin sister were only a few years old when their mother and father and one of their older brothers, on such a winter night, broke through the ice and drowned. MacLeod describes the deliberate way the men go onto the ice, quiet, to see what happened and if anything could be done. At the time, Calum and two other older brothers are getting into their late teens. It is decided that the three older brothers will go work the land and sea, much as has always been the case. Alexander and his sister will go live with their relatively afluent grandma and grandpa in the city.

I think of all this now much as I think I marvelled at it then. Marvelling, somehow, that they could live such different lives than I, while still somehow belonging to me, as I and my sister belonged to them.

This is the setup for an excellent book — one of the best I’ve read this year — about family through the generations, past and present, in a harsh landscape that has done much to mold the narrative. Alexander and his sister grow up comfortably while the older brothers have next to nothing.  There doesn’t seem to be resentment among the immediate family, though. The older brothers may have less to do with their little siblings now, but that doesn’t change the fact that they protect one another and honor their relationship. However, one cousin, also named Alexander MacDonald and also with red hair, expresses frustration that our narrator and his twin have the privilege of living with grandma and grandpa.

At the time the two Alexes fight about this, it is little more than the one being jealous: when a fun day at grandma and grandpa’s is over, he has to leave while the other gets to stay. In time, though, the benefits are much more tangible. Alexander our narrator gets a solid education and gets to go away for school; meanwhile, Calum and the other brothers and young cousin Alexander are working cheaply in a mine. On the day of our narrator’s graduation, while he’s celebrating with his grandma and grandpa, cousin Alexander is killed in a mining accident. The whole clan Calum Ruadh gets together to mourn, and when it’s time to go back to work, our narrator fills the spot just vacated by his identically named cousin. It’s for the sake of loyalty and penace, and a sense of the inherent importance of each of those abstractions, that he treks off to the mine, though — and it’s instances like this, I think, that show how fantastic a writer MacLeod is — our narrator realizes his role in all of this is minor.

I was also aware of a certain guilt concerning the death of the red-haired Alexander MacDonald, although I was not sure if the guilt really was or should have been mine. But there was a vague uneasiness associated with the circumstances and the timing of it all. I told myself that he had gone to the mine after high school because he was not academically inclined. But I knew also that he had done so, at least in part, to help the members of his family who had been haunted, through no fault of their own, by the echoes of a kind of regional, generational poverty which whispered and signed with the insistence of the unseen wind. I realized that Alexander MacDonald had partially paid for the car which ferried me home from my splendid graduation, and I realized that the opportunity to thank him and make amends was now no longer there. I had often recreated the scene in which he had called me “lucky” because my parents had lost their lives, and the feeling of the callouses on his small, determined, hard-working hands seemed permanently bonded to the rising hair on the back of my neck. The touch of his small hands, it seemed, would now and forever be mine, although I told myself that his passing had affected other much more profoundly, and I had best not consider myself so precious.

At the mine he finds out his clan of Cape Breton descendants from Calum Ruadh suspect the rival group of French miners of causing cousin Alexander’s death, so onward to more turmoil.

No Great Mischief develops slowly and deliberately and thoughtfully. Most of it takes place well in the past as we get glimpses of our narrator and Calum interacting tensely years later, when one is happily married and the other lies drunk in a filthy flat, death perhaps nearing, if only he were that lucky. It’s all delicately balanced, the past and present, life and death, and it shows why, on the strength of only two volumes, MacLeod is already highly respected author of world literature.

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By |2016-07-05T18:13:51-04:00June 6th, 2011|Categories: Alistair MacLeod, Book Reviews|Tags: , |6 Comments


  1. KevinfromCanada June 6, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Thanks for the compliment, Trevor, and I am delighted that you enjoyed this novel — it is an amazing piece of work.

    There are two interesting stories about No Great Mischief. One is the reason why it did not win the Giller — someone at the publishing house neglected to enter it and the discovery only came after the deadline.

    More interesting, however, is how it came to be published in the first place. All of the Canadian literary community was well aware that MacLeod had been working on a novel, but would not submit it for publication (you can tell from his extensive catalogue that he like to write, not publish). His publisher, perhaps the best in Canada’s history, drove from Toronto to Windsor and literally stole the manuscript — giving him the upper hand in negotiating with the author to get it finally published. I am one reader that is glad that he did.

  2. Kevin J MacLellan June 6, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Hi Trevor,
    This is a great review in every respect. You have made me anxious to read the book and anything McLeod has written. Your respect for him is evident and your selection of quotes is helpful and revealing. (The idea of describing generational poverty by the simile of a persistent wind is genius!) I have read only a few books from that part of the world, but the story telling spirit has always left a deep impression of seriousness and sympathy with the people who populate those stories. These are qualities often slighted in modern fiction–at least at the prize level.
    I am perhaps also motivated by a borrowed sense of identity here. You see, I imagine he could be writing about my kinsmen. As immigrant Scots – and members of the MacDonald clan – my family came originally to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, and only later down into the Massachusetts area of the U.S. MacLeod is writing about just such, if not the particular ones.
    Thanks for the heads-up and the look-out! Well done.

  3. KevinfromCanada June 6, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Kevin: If you haven’t read it, I would heartily recommend Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees as well as MacLeod — the author not only comes from your clan (lucky you — she is a wonderful person), the story in some ways reflects your own ancestry.

    It starts in Cape Breton (Sydney, actually, where the tar ponds are) and then moves to New York, where one of the daughters escapes from her abusive father. It does get very dark as it goes on (that’s where it doesn’t reflect your family — :-) ). Very well written and a gripping story.

    Not quite as good as MacLeod alas — but perhaps up to his son’s first effort, which both Trevor and I liked very much last year.

  4. Kevin J MacLellan June 6, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for the tip!! (I am going to my local second-hand shop in a while and will look for both.) Only rarely does a prospect excite this much enthusiasm. I love even the very thought of “literature”–but I love great writing even more. Having just finished Ishiguro’s “Nocturnes” and Trevor’s “After Rain”, I am hungry for a new angle. Trevor’s review makes McLeod seem the right choice just now. Your tip makes Canadian lit seem a great bounty. I’ll just have to see. This feels like adventure!
    All the best,

  5. Dave Ferguson June 16, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    I was searching online for a quote from No Great Mischief and happened across this discussion. If you folks are up for one more Cape Breton – centric suggestion, it’s Frank Macdonald’s 2005 novel, A Forest for Calum.

    Set in a small town on the western side of the island, where the coal is fading like the Gaelic of the older generation, it’s the story of an orphaned boy and the dour grandfather (Calum of the title, a man described as “walking like a funeral”) who raised him.

    The Globe and Mail that year said that if there were any justice in the world, A Forest for Calum would become a Canadian classic.

    Perhaps a stronger recommendation would be Alistair MacLeod’s. He called it “an exceptional first novel…finely rendered and heartfelt in its depth. Unique in presentation and rewarding to the end.”

  6. Trevor June 16, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Thanks for the tip, Dave! I just looked at it on Amazon and see a review saying it won the 2007 IMPAC, which isn’t true, though it was long listed (nominated by the Cape Breton library, in fact). I will certainly find a copy!

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