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No Great Mischief Paperback – 1 Jun 2001

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (1 Jun 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099283921
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099283928
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.7 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 20,571 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

For the MacDonalds, the past is not a foreign country. This Cape Breton clan may have lived in the New World since 1779, when Calum Ruadh ("the red Calum") and his wife, 12 children and dog landed. Scotland, however, remains their true home. So profound is their connection to their lost land that on brief visits they find themselves welcomed by strangers. When one descendent tells a Scotswoman that she's from Canada, she is offered a gentle rejoinder: "That may be. But you are really from here. You have just been away for a while." In some ways this is unsurprising, since the MacDonalds either have deep black hair or their ancestor's colouring. And those with the latter have "eyes that were so dark as to be beyond brown and almost in the region of glowing black. Such individuals would manifest themselves as strikingly unfamiliar to some, and as eerily familiar to others". Another sport of nature? Many are fraternal twins, including Alistair MacLeod's narrator, Alexander, and his sister.

But No Great Mischief is far more than the straightforward saga of one family over the generations. Instead, the author has created a painfully beautiful myth in which the long-ago is in many ways more present than modern existence. Even in the last decades of the 20th century, the MacDonalds fall into Gaelic--its inflections, rhythms and song--with deep nostalgia. This is a family that is used to composing itself in the face of disaster. They often assure one another, "My hope is constant in thee," and in the light of their many losses, the clan must cling to its motto.

No Great Mischief begins with Alexander's visit to Toronto, where his eldest brother now subsists on a diet of drink and memories. The narrator, a successful orthodontist, doesn't have much to do with the former but is unable (or unwilling) to escape the latter. As the novel proceeds, Alexander fills in his family history, including such key episodes as his great-great-grandfather's self-exile from Scotland. Though Calum Ruadh had intended to leave his dog behind, it broke away and tried to catch up with him. MacLeod piercingly captures the animal's struggle as her master first tries to make her head for shore and then--realising she won't desert him--spurs her on. Throughout No Great Mischief various people recall this incident, an emblem of intensity, hope and dependence. A descendant of the bitch is also on hand when Alexander's parents and one of his brothers disappear under the ice on a cold spring night. She persists in searching for her people and tries to protect their lighthouse from the new keeper, receiving in return "four bullets into her loyal waiting heart". When Alexander's grandfather hears of her death, he uses a phrase that becomes one of the book's litanies, "It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard."

This is a MacDonald characteristic as well. A good deal of No Great Mischief's strength stems from scenes of longing and despair--for those who die for a lost cause, whether in 1692 when one leader is killed ("the redness of his hair dyed forever brighter by the crimson of his blood") or in an Ontario uranium mine where one brother is decapitated. MacLeod evokes his clan, and the elemental beauty of their landscape, in quiet, precise language that gains power with each repetition. (A sentence such as "All of us are better when we're loved" comes to acquire a near proverbial ring.) If he occasionally tips his hand too much, pressing home his point that present-day prosperity isn't all it's cracked up to be, no matter. There is no doubt that this inspired and elegiac novel will ever leave those who are lucky enough to read it--proving after all the persistence of the clann Chalum Ruaidh. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"You will find scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever" (Alice Munro)

"One of the great undiscovered writers of our time" (Michael Ondaatje)

"The novel is close to being a masterpiece. The characters, the light and the weather, the story itself - its beautiful tone and shape, its harsh and melancholy music - stay with you for days afterwards. The novel is simply breathtaking in its emotional range" (Colm Toibin Irish Times)

"Exceptional... The book is pervaded by the humour and colour; intensely vivid, and very, very moving" (Independent)

"Alistair MacLeod is a wonderfully talented writer" (Margaret Atwood)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 28 Sep 2003
Format: Paperback
Alexander MacDonald, the narrator of this warm and ennobling family saga, comments to his brother that "Talking about history is not like living it...Some people have more choice than others." And there, in a nutshell, is the essence of this tender generational novel. The MacDonalds are, in many ways, an "ordinary" family on Cape Breton, but MacLeod creates a history for them so alive that the reader experiences it, too, feeling their sorrow and joy, admiring their pluck and independence, and celebrating their loyalty and bravery as they make the hard choices their lives require. They become heroes to us not because they have performed unusual feats but because they have achieved nobility within the collective memory of their own family.
Alexander MacDonald, the speaker, no longer lives on Cape Breton. An orthodontist, he travels weekly to Toronto to visit his alcoholic brother Calum, named for the family patriarch who came to the island in 1779 from Scotland. As he travels back and forth and reminisces, sometimes in Gaelic, with his much less fortunate brother, many generations of MacDonalds come to life, and we see how these forbears have shaped the two brothers and influenced their different, but shared, destinies.
MacLeod is very lyrical. Like a musician, he repeats certain themes. Gaelic phrases echo throughout, almost like a refrain. First names continue in different generations to remind the reader of historical resemblances and differences. And always, in every generation, he celebrates the dominance of the original Calum MacDonald and of Cape Breton in shaping their lives. MacLeod never stoops to sentimentality, however. His main characters are all macho males living macho lives, and he includes no romantic love story to soften the harshness of life. Still, he has created a warm, loving, and enduring family story that pulses with heart and resonates in memory. Mary Whipple
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe on 15 Jan 2006
Format: Paperback
It is amazing how many stories one can pack into a day. Alistair McLeod let’s his protagonist’s mind wander through the lifetime of several generations in just a few hours. What emerges is the absorbing family history and much more.
At one level this novel is the story of Alexander MacDonald, his twin sister and their older brothers, belonging to a family of tremendous loyalty and commitment, steeped in tradition and history. We follow them from early childhood when tragedy befalls them, leaving them orphans, through their adolescent years and to adulthood.
At a deeper level, it is a testament to ‘blood is thicker than water’. The MacDonald trace their roots back to the legendary Calum Ruadh ("the red Calum") and his brood of 12 children who arrived in the New World in the 1770s as one of the early settler families in Cape Breton.
The descendents of the founding father, Alexander and his siblings, remain cocooned in the close-knit family, protected by the strength of family ties and values which help them through the sometimes painful dramas in their lives. The past stays vividly in the minds of all its members; the grandparents reminding the younger generation constantly through stories of lives lived. Time seems "to compress and expand almost simultaneously"; events are repeated to allow the author to present them from different perspectives. Convictions are expressed almost like mottos throughout the novel: “Always look after your own blood” or “We are all better when we're loved”.
While Alexander and his sister, living in the relative comfort of their grandparents’ home, are encouraged and financially supported in their academic ambitions, the older brothers have to fend for themselves.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Flibertigibbit on 28 Mar 2008
Format: Paperback
MacLeod is a Nova Scotian Canadian. All of his work centres on the Highland Scottish exile experience in Cape Breton (and to a lesser extent, that of the Irish both there and in Newfoundland). This is a beautiful, elegy about being in exile and the longing for one's old country. The exile is not merely geographic, but spiritual and temporal. The clan of Calum Ruaidh is out of time and anachronistic, whilst its struggle for survival and the force of its courage and spirit is utterly timeless. Always in MacLeod's work there is an unsentimental presentation of what people need to do to survive, heightened of course by the cruel and harsh environment of the coast of Cape Breton. The tensions between past and present, tradition and modernity are always at the surface but the spirit of the highlanders is unbreakable. There are parts of this book that will send a shiver down your spine or make your eyes well up with tears, it is that moving. After reading MacLeod's collected stories, Island and now this you almost believe there is no point in reading anyone else. I pray that MacLeod will write another novel and more short stories before long. It will be a cause for celebration when he does.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Howell on 11 Mar 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
MacLeod's books don't find their way into English bookshops with great regularity and that is a real shame for he is simply a wonderful writer.

MaLeod writes in a wonderfully paired-back, economical style. He reminds me very much of the late, wonderful Irish writer John McGahern, indeed, it was through McGahern's praising of MacLeod that I first came across him. If you've not read McGahern then - stylistically - MacLeod reminds me of Richard Ford, Annie Proux or Raymond Carver.

His material is always drawn from the Gallic speakers of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, descendants of those who for various reasons travelled from Scotland to North America at the time of the clearances. This contemporary story looks at the life of one such family and their wider clan and alternates between telling the story of the clans movement to the story of such a tight nit community as it begins to become more diluted within the vastly wider world of North America.

A great story and easy to read - this can easily be consumed in one or two reading sessions.

Definitely recommended.
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