No Great Mischief
McClelland & Stewart, 1999
First published: Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Alistair MacLeod’s new book, No Great Mischief is, without a doubt, a book with baggage. Noted for the meticulous slowness with which he crafts a story, MacLeod, an English professor at the University of Windsor, had managed, prior to No Great Mischief, to produce only two small volumes of short stories, each ten years in the making. His writing, however, met with immense critical acclaim, and based on this rather slim oeuvre, he gained a close-to-mythic stature as a great, if somewhat reticent Canadian writer of short stories. The publication of this, his first novel, which took MacLeod a further thirteen years to craft, was hailed as the literary event of the decade. By the time it arrived on my doorstep, it was trailing a lot of expectations, all of which, happily, it has met and exceeded.
The story begins in a low-key manner as Alexander MacDonald, the narrator, makes a regular trip through southwestern Ontario to Toronto to check on his older brother Calum, a Queen Street skid-row alcoholic. The remainder of the book is an examination of this situation, of how Alexander, an affluent orthodontist and his brother came to be in such different circumstances and the ties, ancient and modern, that nevertheless bind them. Along the way one is led to consider, amongst other things, the disparity of human fate, the value of a life within and outside of a family, the importance of place and what it means to leave, and the perhaps ambiguous role of family loyalty.
The brothers’ lives were proceeding along similar paths in rural Nova Scotia until one fateful day when their parents and a sibling drown. Alexander, being very young, was, along with his twin sister, taken in and raised by his grandparents – given the advantages of a stable home and an education. Calum, and the other two older boys, being in their middle teens and somewhat ungovernable, abandoned their schooling, and took up residence in an old family house, leading a lonely, and unregulated existence.
With the parable of the sower in mind, fate definitely cast Calum on stonier ground. Despite this, he grew up to head his extended family’s hard rock mining crew whose services were much in demand with mining companies around the world. His downfall arose from a brawl which erupted at a mining camp between the MacDonalds and their quasi-rivals, the French-Canadian crew headed by the irascible Fern Picard. We eventually learn that the incident was more complicated than it seemed, but in the end Fern Picard lay dead. Although he had clearly acted in self-defense, Calum was convicted of Picard’s murder. He spent ten years in the Kingston penitentiary and never recovered.
While MacLeod’s apparently simple prose moves the reader through the story in an apparently straightforward manner, and he is undoubtedly a master at creating mood with detail, the key to the indisputable impact of his writing comes, I believe, from his ability to create powerful images and to manipulate them so that they colour not only the immediate narrative, but the story as a whole and produce contrasts, large and small, that disturb the reader. At the heart of the disturbance you find the heart of the story.
For example, in the opening scenes, the reader experiences, through Alexander’s eyes, the almost overwhelming abundance of a southwestern Ontario harvest season, passing city-dwellers, “picking their own,” and migrant workers, picking to live, on the way to the minutely observed destitution of Calum’s Toronto lodgings. Questions inevitably arise from these contrasts. Why are some lives easy and privileged, and others hard, and destitute? Why is one born in the midst of plenty and another not? Why, in short, is fate so random and careless? Being a survivor himself, these are big questions for Alexander, but MacLeod has activated them in the reader’s mind long before the particulars of the MacDonald brothers’ circumstances become apparent.
The importance of family as a testament and witness to ones worth, is another question which arises from telling of this tale. The title, “No Great Mischief,” is a reference to a remark made by the English General Wolf about the use of Scottish soldiers, MacDonalds among them, in warfare. “No great mischief,” he said, “if they fall.” Outside of ones family, and by extension, clan, or ethnic group, it seems, ones value rapidly diminishes.
Calum, competent and courageous, loyal, kind, and capable of great depth of feeling, is denied a chance to realize his potential by fate, and in a complicated way, family loyalty led to his ruin. Was his life, therefore, wasted? Would his life have been worth less, if Alexander were not there to value him? The answers aren’t clear, but the image of a spring comes to mind, a fresh-water spring which bubbles into the salty ocean, on the childhood island home of Calum and Alexander; a spring which continues “pouring out its heart,” “into the whitened darkness of the night,” with nobody to know the difference.
With all this talk of death, disturbance, and weighty symbolism, I fear I have neglected to make clear just how full of life, love, humour and warmth, this story is. Whatever else, MacLeod spins one darn good yarn.
Somebody famous once said that the perfect review would simply recreate the entire book, beginning to end, with no further comment from the reviewer. I feel that way about No Great Mischief. Attempts to review this story are continually sabotaged because consideration of any one image, or idea, inevitably requires mention of all the others. All the big images – the horse Christy who “always kept her part of the bargain,” the MacDonald dog who had it in her to “care too much and to try too hard,” the disemboweled whale whose body is washed further inland by a storm, but whose heart stays close to the sea, the harvest, the grave, the spring – there are many others — amplify each other, until by the end of the story, their cumulative effect is that of a thundering, reverberating chorus of life that will shake you — all the more miraculous because it was knit from everyday details, and began on such an unassuming note. Leave anything out, and the impression falls far short of the real thing. And every time you think about the story, you discover another connection. Read the book!