Sunday, February 20, 2011

No Great Mischief

Family is one of the most important things to me, for it is our families that we share and celebrate all of the joys and tragedies life has to offer. So when I found this weeks book I knew I would enjoy it. No Great Mischief, written by Canadian author Alistair MacLead, is an intricate tale of truth about people who care for one another and for the living world around them. This novel is pervaded by humour and colour, intensely vivid, with enduring truths couched in pellucid prose. It speaks of great loves and tragic losses that will move readers in every corner of the world.

No Great Mischief tells the sprawling story of one Scottish clan, the MacDonalds, who come to Cape Breton from Scotland in the 18th century and struggle valiantly to maintain their pride and identity up through the end of the millennium. The narrative is in the hands of a rather staid Ontario orthodontist, Alexander MacDonald, who guides us through his family’s mythic past as he recollects the heroic stories of his people: loggers, miners, drinkers, adventurers; men forever in exile, forever linked to their clan. There is the legendary patriarch who left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 and resettled in “the land of trees,” where his descendents became a separate Nova Scotia clan. There is the team of brothers and cousins, expert miners in demand around the world for their dangerous skills. And there is Alexander and his twin sister, who have left Cape Breton and prospered, yet are haunted by the past. What emanates is a loving retrieval of a people's native strategy of survival through history and across a changing landscape. Elegiac, hypnotic, by turns joyful and sad, No Great Mischief is a spellbinding story of family, loyalty, exile, and of the blood ties that bind us, generations later, to the land from which our ancestors came.

From the moment Alexander MacDonald sets out along Highway 3 to visit his alcoholic brother, this sturdily textured debut novel never hesitates or meanders. There are plenty of diverse characters who possess strength and depth, and continue to linger in your mind. The vivid and changing scenes, and gripping incidents are laced with grace and wisdom. Four generations of MacDonalds move through the pages of this book, from the first to arrive in Cape Breton from Scotland to narrator Alexander and his siblings. MacLeod, who has been heralded in his native Canada as a master of the short story, exhibits a remarkable ability to create and handle an intricate plot that goes back and forth between past and present. Though sentimentality plays a considerable part in the unfolding of the drama, MacLeod's clever writing disciplines and subdues it.

Generations after their forebears went into exile, the MacDonalds still face seemingly unmitigated hardships and cruelties of life. But, like all the clansman, they are sustained by a family history that seems to run through their veins. The MacDonalds find strength and support in their shared history, the resurrection of their Gaelic heritage, and their family creed: "take care of your blood". It's through these lovingly recounted stories-wildly comic or heartbreakingly tragic-that we discover the hope against hope upon which every family must sometimes rely.

The novel's title quotes General Wolfe, who had fought against the MacDonalds in an earlier conflict but relied on them to take the Plains of Abraham: 'They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.' Wolfe regarded the Highlanders as his secret enemies, and was furious at their insistence on carrying their wounded from the field when ordered to retreat. Here in the public record are themes that the book explores more domestically: a self-sacrificial code of honour, and the betrayal that lies in wait for it.

This is a simply great novel. The simplicity lies in the device of the plot. The greatness lies in its scope, imagination, and execution. MacLead's message beguiles, his prose captivates, and his narrative never loosens a deceptively gentle grip. MacLeod’s descriptions are remarkable, and you will find scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever.

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