Thursday, December 15, 2011

No Great Mischief

I wrote the other day about all the books I hadn't read. Some books, like the classics, I'm actively aware of not having read: I know their general stories, but have not yet picked them up to see what they're all about for myself. Other books, though, I have no idea I haven't read because I just didn't know about them. Although this means I'm probably missing out on a great many incredible books, it also means that I get the wonderful surprise of coming across them with no expectations or preconceived plot ideas, allowing me to enjoy an old book as though it were brand new. How I managed to so completely miss No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod I don't know, but I'm certainly glad it caught up with me eventually.

No Great Mischief is, on the surface, the story of the narrator, Alexander MacDonald (one of many in his family), a man who, as a boy, was so accustomed to being called 'ille bhig ruaidh (Gaelic for little red-haired boy) that he did know know his own name. That tendency to name-as-description seems to have followed him, because it's hard to think of him as anyone but "the narrator" – practically nameless. Anyhow, as the novel opens, he is driving to Toronto to find his brother, an alcoholic living in the kind of seedy, dirty rooms that men with no money and few standards find to rent until their money runs out. When he arrives, he finds his brother shaking without a drink and hand him the bottle of brandy he's brought for just such an event. After calming his brother's tremors, he sets out to the LCBO for something that will last a little longer. Before the question of why he would facilitate his brother's alcoholism even blooms in your mind, though, he begins to tell you about his family, the Clann Chalum Ruaidh.

After Culloden and the day the French prince didn't arrive, Calum MacDonald – who had six children with his first wife and then, when she died, married her sister and had six more children – packed up his family and sailed to Cape Breton, the land of trees. Generations of MacDonalds have since lived on the land of the Clann Chalum Ruaidh, passing down the stories, songs, language, and genetics of their long-dead patriarch. In most families, perhaps, knowing the exploits of someone's great-great-great-great grandfather is perhaps unimportant, but for the Clann Chalum Ruaidh, family history is as innate as breathing. 

The narrator was three when his parents and an older brother fell through the ice and drowned. His father was a lighthouse keeper just off shore from the Clann Chalum Ruaidh land, and the father, mother and brother were carrying supplies back to the island in late March when they went through. The narrator and his twin sister were spending the night at with their grandparents and three of their older brothers were with friends, which is probably why they didn't all die. While the narrator and his sister were then brought up by their father's parents in the town, the three older brothers (aged 14 to 17) decided to move back to the country land and live on their own. But family takes care of itself, and they  always manage to have what they need to get by. Little by little, though, they move away. The older brothers get hired by a mining company and work as blasting engineers in mines around the world, the narrator and his sister go away to university, but still they find the Gaelic bubbling up in them, and get recognized by long-lost relatives for their distinctive colouring.

If there were ever a master class in how to build metaphors as scenes, there is no question that MacLeod should teach it. No Great Mischief is a deceptively simple story of a man remembering his life and relating the lives of his ancestors equally as vividly. After a mining accident in which a cousin is killed, the narrator, fresh out of undergrad, agrees to take the place of the dead man for four months so the MacDonald crew can continue on. One day, the lift in the mine breaks, and the MacDonalds are forced to climb out of the mine using a system of rickety emergency ladders. It sounds banal, but MacLeod's attention to the intricacies of the scene – how the stones and mud from the boots of the man above will fall onto the man below, trickling all the way to the bottom, for example – illuminate it. There are many of these small gems that manage to be both straightforward storytelling and metaphors for the larger picture of a family continuing through generations.

No Great Mischief is a novel that very much resembles its home. Cape Breton is a sprawling, beautiful part of Nova Scotia, wild and ragged and unassuming in its ability to make you breathless as you turn a corner and are faced with a vista of forest, cliffs, and ocean. Likewise, No Great Mischief doesn't play tricks on its readers: the language is plain and straightforward, as is MacLeod's storytelling style, and just as you become comfortable with the images and pace, you turn the page or move to the next paragraph and are struck by the incredible beauty of his language, or the subtly vivid evocation of place and time, and the way he trusts you to read what he's writing and also see how he's saying more than what's written on the page. Not every writer trusts their audience this way, but just as the Clann Chalum Ruaidh trust each other without question, MacLeod's faith in his reader is what allows this novel to be as gorgeous and moving as it is.

No Great Mischief
by Alistair MacLeod
First published in 1999 (cover image shown from McClelland & Stewart edition)

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