No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

I first became interested in reading this novel when my mother pointed it out to me, saying the story of the family described within it was similar to how her family came over from Scotland in 1922. Reading it, I found that the legendary ancestor of MacLeod’s first person narrator came over during the eighteenth century, in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Slightly different eras (well, around 200 years), but still a similar experience.

I first read Alistair MacLeod in my first semester of English Literature at McGill, in Canadian Literature 2, a course taught by Robert Lecker. I had read one of MacLeod’s short stories “The Boat,” and came to appreciate MacLeod as a great Canadian author writing out of his experience living on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. One interesting story about his habits as a writer is that he never writes on a computer, but composes the sentences he is about to write in his head first, before carefully writing the fully-formed sentence on paper. Each word in his novel appears to have been chosen carefully and specifically, confirming his particular method of composition.

Since I felt in a Scottish mood (I have also been reading Diana Gabaldon’s An Echo in the Bone, part of her famous Highlander series), I picked up MacLeod and took a break from my usual fantasy/historical fantasy literary staples. Reading MacLeod might be a departure for a fantasy reader, but one with a genuine interest in history could still find interest in MacLeod.

No Great Mischief is a novel of reminiscence and legacy. The first-person narrator, whose Cape Breton ancestry is shared with the author’s, is Alexander MacDonald, a red-haired dentistry student who reminisces about his grandparents and their legendary eighteenth-century ancestors, while talking to his sister and looking over his alcoholic brother.

The title is a reference to a letter General James Wolfe wrote before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Having fought the Scots at Culloden, his sudden position of having clansmen placed in his army made him distrustful of them, inspiring his letter, which stated it was “no great mischief” if the Scots fell on the Plains during his fateful battle against Montcalm.

The book is filled with all kinds of episodes remembered from the past and repeated in the present. For example, Calum Ruadh‘s family dog swims to the boat leaving Scotland, as if it might have swam the whole way to Canada on its own. A symbol of the clan itself, illustrating the caring sacrifices of a people among whom “blood is thicker than water,” the dog’s ancestors carried on into the present era, where they continue to be loyal to their masters—and perhaps, tragically, too loyal for their own good.

MacLeod makes you laugh and he also makes you cry. The stormy, misty highland landscape on the cover of my edition serves as an accurate representation of the book’s mood. The sense that one must be loyal to one’s ancestral origins is strong, even to the point where I thought any kind of forward-looking action in the story would be a relief. There are whole chapters with little more than back-and-forth dialogue of characters reminiscing about their grandparents or recalling stories from the past they were told in their youth, such as the stories of James Wolfe and the Battle of Culloden. No Great Mischief is not about the future, but how we remember the past.

I enjoyed reading MacLeod, the slower-paced story a good change of rhythm from the faster-paced novels abundant in popular fiction. No Great Mischief constantly looks backwards in time, in various ways and degrees, and always with a sense of grace. I would recommend MacLeod especially to people of Scottish descent, Cape Breton ancestry, or people with an interest in those cultures, although anyone who likes to hear stories from their grandparents would probably like to read No Great Mischief.

This post is a part of a three-part Scottish series, which will culminate with a review of An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon. Since two books I read this summer mention Culloden, I decided it would make a fine trilogy if I could include an analysis of the 1745 battle in my next post. It will be exciting, so just stay tuned.

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