No Great Mischief

by Alistair MacLeod

Published by McClelland & Stewart

283 pages, 1999

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An Overdue Debut

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


Alistair MacLeod is a writer's writer. Let me tell you what I mean by that. At the tender age of 63, No Great Mischief is MacLeod's debut novel: hardly a number you'd think would have the publishing world on the edge of its collective and considered seat.

No Great Mischief arrived to relative fanfare late in 1999 in Canada and will likely be reviewed by all of the "important" journals when published in the United States later in 2000. Part of the recognition factor is no doubt due MacLeod's longtime standing in the academic literary community: the author is currently a professor of English at the University of Windsor in Ontario and he previously taught creative writing at the University of Indiana. However the largest part of his reputation among the literati has been based on praise for two collections of short stories -- 14 stories in total -- published in book form as The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986). Hardly, one would think, a track record to cause the literary world to leap to attention when the author finally brings forth a novel.

Enter No Great Mischief, a startlingly poetic and perfectly structured story told by Alexander MacDonald, a successful orthodontist who is reflecting on his life and the history of his family. Much of the action in No Great Mischief takes place in the late middle portion of the 20th century though, in many ways, the story truly begins far ahead of that. Alexander is the ancestor of a heroic highlander who left Scotland with his family in 1779. The descendants of Calum MacDonald -- Calum Ruadh in Gaelic -- have formed a tightly knit community on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. Early in the book, Alexander remembers the questions that parents of other children would ask of him and his cousins:

"What's your mother's father's name?" And almost without fail, in the case of myself and my cousins, there would come a knowing look across the face of our questioners and they would say, in response to our answer, "Ah, you are the clann Chalum Ruaidh," meaning, "Ah, you are the children (or the family) of the red Calum." We would nod and accept this judgment, as the ice and snow dripped off our shin pads to form puddles on the linoleum floors.

The clann Chalum Ruaidh plays a large part in No Great Mischief. It gives a very tangible focus to the concepts of family and history as it lives through all of us: even if we don't speak Gaelic. We follow -- though through Alexander's voice, not necessarily chronologically -- the lives of Alexander and his twin sister. When their parents and one brother are lost crossing the ice when the twins are very young, Alexander and his sister go to live with their grandparents, while their older brothers end up living alone in a house that's been in the family for generations. Somewhat predictably, the elder brothers create a rough and ready life without much thought to the future, while the youngest two -- with their grandparents' careful doting -- grow to reach for their potentials. None of this -- parents lost to ice or children with careful care ripening more brightly -- is the point of the story, though it all plays a lovely part of the journey.

If there must be a point, it's MacLeod's lovely prose and the elegance with which he inches us along towards a bittersweet conclusion. No Great Mischief is a startlingly lovely book. A wonderful -- if overdue -- debut. | February 1999


SIENNA POWERS is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.