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No Great Mischief

by Alistair MacLeod

Every now and again a story surfaces on the news – there was another one back in August – of a poor soul staggering out of the Outback/Mojave Desert/ barrens of Nunavut, having lost his way, wandered for weeks, and survived on a cruel diet of scorpions/cacti/ muskeg.

I was recalled this fall to those kinds of stories as I kept up with the press, the reviews and interviews, that attended the arrival of Alistair MacLeod’s new novel. MacLeod is known, of course, as the author of two fine collections of stories. The thing is, he doesn’t work quickly – at least, he doesn’t publish quickly. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood came out in 1976, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun not until 1986.

A desert of 13 years then got in between that book and this new one, No Great Mischief. That distance of years is what all the reviewers and interviewers accented, so relentlessly that after a while it was hard to tell what the achievement was here, the book itself or what MacLeod’s publisher McClelland & Stewart reverentially called his “silence.”

The silence also raised suspicions. Maybe under all the hyperbole the book was wan, weakly. So it was a strange sort of relief to read No Great Mischief and find otherwise, that it’s a rich, evocative, satisfying novel about family and the proximity of the past, and how it sustains the present.

MacLeod’s narrator is Alexander MacDonald, a Southern Ontario orthodontist. Teeth may be his profession, but the topic at hand here is blood. The main line of the narrative takes Alexander from his home to Toronto, on a visit to a frail, alcoholic older brother, Calum. It doesn’t take much to open Alexander’s memory and once it’s open, the book oscillates back through time to his parents’ death under lake-ice, back to the day in 1779 that his great-great-great-grandfather came to Cape Breton from Scotland.

Not that Alexander thinks of history in any past tense. MacLeod’s fictional world – and this is one of the things that gives it such depth – is defined by unity of past and present. For Alexander and his family, the two are abreast, one is as vivid, as active as the other. When they talk about the Battle of Killiecrankie in the fall of 1689, it’s not old news, they talk as if they were there to witness the “bloodied plaids.” More, too: they talk as if past outcomes are still to be decided. MacLeod’s title comes from what General James Wolfe said about his Highland soldiers before the Battle of Quebec in 1759, that it would be “no great mischief if they fall.” When 20th-century MacDonalds talk about Wolfe, it’s as if they’re just waiting for the right moment to take him out behind the barn and toss him like a caber.

With MacLeod, geography is a unity, too: wherever MacDonalds go, to settle in Cape Breton or to mine the Canadian Shield at Algoma, that too, is Scotland. Geography, in turn, can even be one with the body: “Grandpa,” Alexander recalls, “used to say that when he was a young man he would get an erection as soon as his feet hit Cape Breton.”

Alexander isn’t simply travelling as a tourist through his past/present, the here/there. No, he’s also carefully taking stock as he goes, it almost seems ritualistic, he’s weighing, retesting all the things that have sustained him, the loyalty, the pride, the resilience that’s celebrated in the old family maxim, “You will get used to almost anything, except a nail in your shoe.”

It’s early yet, but for its slow rhythms, its remarkable synthesis of now and then, and the strength and serenity of its vision, No Great Mischief feels like a book that’s gone deep and means to stay. Full of praise and gratitude, I’d invoke the opening of one of the stories in MacLeod’s As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, the one called “Vision.”

“I don’t remember when I first heard the story,” it goes, “but I remember the first time that I heard it and remembered it. By that I mean the first time it made an impression on me and more or less became mine; sort of went into me the way such things do, went into me in a such a way that I knew it would not leave again but would remain there forever.”