Monday, March 22, 2010

No Great Mischief

"No Great Mischief" written by Alistair MacLeod (© 1999, McClelland and Stewart Ltd.)


It is that time of the month in my world. Yup, book club. Well, it has actually been postponed a week, but I finished the book last night. I thought that I would write a review of this month's title, as it was a good read. I find it interesting to review myself, before we discuss the merits of the book in question with our little group. Sometimes opinions change, so here is my two cents worth today.



Last night as I turned the light out on the last page of "No Great Mischief", a tear slid from my eye. I am a sentimentalist at heart and never fail to be moved by a well written story. Turning the last page and snuffling back my goodbyes, it is safe to say that this book touched me. 

While wandering through the reflections of a life lived, the reader is offered a glimpse of some of the hardships to be had in living a life linked to the sea in Cape Breton. This is where the story begins for the man known by everyone as gille bhig ruaidh, (little red-haired boy)this for his looks and links to the clann Chalum Ruaidh. The Gaelic language plays heavily throughout the story, giving the characters roots that travel back several generations to the Scotland of their fore-fathers. At times the story wanders back to the generations past and the protagonist and his kin think on these past players with an almost melancholy loss. The history is reflected like it happened just yesterday and the tragedies that played out then, are still felt and mourned today by the present clann. While this personalizing of a past that is ancient in memory is interesting and gives some insight into how MacLeod's characters play out their scenes, the story gains depth as ancient history is translated into present day.

"No Great Mischief" is narrated by Alexander MacDonald  as he wanders back through a life struck by tragedies, but not shattered by them. He reflects on the losses starting with that of his parents and brother, when he and his twin sister are only three years of age. With the loss of his parents his eldest three brothers (14, 15 and 16 years) strike out on their own to find their own roots and beliefs. While the burdens of an adult life thrust upon them so young is a challenge and struggle, kin always plays a pivotal role. 

Much of the novel focuses on the eldest brother Calum and his strengths and struggles along the way. He is labelled a trouble-maker, but 'ille bhig ruaidh gives us a picture that paints understanding and strength of character for the solitary figure of Calum. The ancient losses from generations gone are compounded with the more recent losses of parents to be worn with the solidarity of kinship pride. The feeling of melancholy that weaves throughout the story is poignant. That kinship follows from the Cape Breton coast, to mining towns around the world, from the distant shores of Scotland to the busy streets of Toronto. Having lost my own father at an age where imagined memory is all I can muster, I understand the searching that 'ille bhig ruaidh is struggling with. The clann Chalum Ruaidh might suffer its losses, but they do not forget and no one is left behind. So while some actions are not always acceptable to polite society or different pockets of the world (like the French Canadians they meet in the mining camps),  the clann Chalum Ruaidh never wavers but to carry on. 

While I did not have the string of the tale fully grasped at the beginning of the novel, by the end Macleod had all my sympathies and heart. In the book, Grandma is often fond of quoting "Blood is thicker than water". This is the string that wends its way through the pages. It is also what won Alistair MacLeod an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. My opinion; Thumbs up from me.

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