Alistair MacLeod is no household name. He’s published some short stories and this novel–all of them set on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. I’d read one collection of his stories at the behest of my Canadian son-in-law, found them well-written, but decidedly grim, and did not seek out more. I discovered No Great Mischief after talking to a friend about an upcoming (now completed) journey to Eastern Canada. She recommended it as a way of gaining some insight into the character and history of the area. It turned out to be more than that. No Great Mischief is a considerable literary achievement.
The man writes with great economy and simplicity about people who live lives simple in their outlines, yet as emotionally and culturally complex as any on earth or in history. It’s a little like reading a sonnet. A lot going on in the course of a few simple lines.
At the heart of the story is a modern professional man (orthodontist), the narrator, struggling to care for his alcoholic brother. Both live in Toronto. Both share a Cape Breton childhood. In the course of the narrative, we are carried back to 18th century Scotland, from whence the original MacDonalds emigrated, through the nineteenth into the mid-20th century. The whole work has the tone of a memoir. So much so, that I had to remind myself from time to time that it is a work of fiction and not the true family history of Mr. MacLeod.
The family is a large one, and the relationships complex. For many generations, they remain in geographical proximity, creating an intense and textured complex of relationships as they are forced together even in circumstances which might ordinarily fracture them. Even when, in the mid-20th century, economic necessity forces them to stray away from Cape Breton to the uranium mines on the Canadian Shield, the brothers go together. There’s even a stray nephew from San Francisco who joins them at the mines to avoid the Vietnam war. There is manslaughter and camaraderie between the Scotch and the French. (Interesting sidebar: the title comes from a quote from a French general under whom the Scotch fought against the English. Said general said he could use them as cannon fodder, that if they were slaughtered, it would be “no great mischief.”) There is death in the mines and under the Cape Breton ice. One such death gives the narrator the cache to go to university while the alcoholic older brother is forced to work fishing boats for most of his life. There is also intense affection, compassion, bravery, and loyalty.
MacLeod tells the story so simply, that you have to step back to realize how intricate and far-reaching the tale is. I carry this book around with me in my head now, thinking about it from time to time. About the history of this people, this family, which I can’t help believing is not fictional after all. I carry as well images of the Cape Breton landscape through which we drove and hiked, the accents (French, Scotch, Irish) we heard, and somehow it all makes a nice tapestry. Maybe, like all fine pieces of art, No Great Mischief is in an important sense, not really fictional at all.