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 Lifting, here). 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 (1999).
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 Ruadhis 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 Mischiefdevelops 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.