Tuesday, October 9, 2007

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

All right, so here goes this reviewing books in my blog thing. I picked this up through a bookring (which I thought I had sworn off until the chance to read this book came up) through Bookcrossing (a great site to visit if you're interested in sharing your books and meeting a lot of other folks who love to read and share their books) and BookObsessed (another great site with a great community of book lovers, not to mention some great Yankee book swaps which I am heavily addicted to). But anyhow, on with the show.

MacLeod's novel chronicles the life of the MacDonald clan from the time they left Scotland to the present day on Cape Breton in Canada. His characters, though far removed from the Highlanders of old, feel a profound connection with all of their ancestors and with each other. A repeated theme is that of taking care of one's own blood which is demonstrated throughout the book, when Alexander, the narrator, and his sister are taken in and raised by his grandparents when his parents meet a tragic end. Again we see it when Alexander puts his education as an orthodontist on hold in order to join his older brothers and members of his clan sinking uranium mine shafts on the Canadian Shield. Again the theme appears when the same group of men offers refuge to a cousin from San Francisco who is seeking to dodge the Vietnam draft. Even though the brothers have never met him, they welcome him with open arms and no questions asked. This theme holds the book together and emphasizes the deep connection of the clann Chalum Ruadh from the distant past to the troubled present. One of the finest moments in the book occurs when Alexander's sister visits the Scottish Highlands and ends up meeting with a crowd of members of the clann whom she has never met, but all are moved to tears by the "reuniting" of this distant Canadian member with those who chose to remain in the Highlands.

Alice Munro praises No Great Mischief saying this, "You will find scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever." A truer word was never spoken. While the novel as a whole is engaging, without MacLeod's talent for creating captivating scenes describing the past or the scenery or even events that would fail to capture our interest if it weren't for his descriptive flair, it would most likely fall flat. These are the moments that make this novel a very worthwile read.

It speaks for itself in descriptions of the scenery...

If we were there in the windy days of fall, and if the wind were off the sea, we would run down to the Calum Ruadh's Point and engage in contests to see who could remain standing in the wind's force the longest. If we faced the sea, the wind would blow our breath back within us as the spray from the water on the rocks rose and covered us and Calum Ruadh's gravestone with glistening drops, and we would have to avert our heads and gasp for air or throw ourselves on our stomachs and breathe with our mouths pressed against the flattened grass or the cranberry vines or the creeping tendrils of wet moss. If the wind were off the land, we would not be allowed to go, for fear that a sudden gust might lift and carry us over the point and dash us down to the shining boulders or out to fall into the wind-whipped sea, which was always brown and angry with agitation. pg. 73

And in imaginings of the Highlanders in their former glory...

"I see them sometimes coming home across the wildness of Rannoch Moor in the splendour of the autumn sun. I imagine them coming with their horses and their banners and their plaids tossed arrogantly over their shoulders. Coming with their broadswords, and their claymores and their bull-hide targes decorated with designs of brass. Singing the choruses of their rousing songs, while the sun gleams off the shining of their weapons and the black and the redness of their hair." pg. 89-90

The only complaint I have about this book is that only a few of the main characters have actual given names, the rest of them are referred to as "my second brother" or similar titles. It's a little bit confusing and occasionally discourages from the characterization. Other than that, this book is a can't miss. MacLeod brings these tightly-knit Scottish descendents and their environs to vivid life. Unforgettable!

Read other reviews at...

An Adventure in Reading
In Spring it is the Dawn


  1. Yeah, BookObsessed is well named. I don't hang there nearly as much as I used to, or should. I'm trying to pare down the sheer numbers of books -- mostly from the sweepstakes I won two years ago. Do you play in them?

  2. Yes, I love to play in the sweepstakes, but always with some trepidation ("Wow, wouldn't it be great if I won all these books? Oh man, what on earth will I do if I win all these books?"). I haven't won one yet, so it's been a nice way for me to get rid of a few books, which is always good since I seem to always have plenty to spare overflowing my shelves! =)

  3. A Cape Bretoner myself, I should really read this. I've heard many great things about it. I had to read him in High School and that turned me off him. Someday I will do it. Great review.

  4. Chris, definitely read it! I actually ended up liking it more than I expected to, and books are so much better when teachers aren't telling you that you have to read them, right? ;-)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I really want to read this book now.

  6. Its a great book! I'm doing my english project on it and it's very interesting. At times it is a bit confusing, going from the present to the past and so forth. Other than that, it's a good read. I like the whole theme about blood is thicker than water.

  7. This book is awful..worse book i've ever read in my life.

  8. I love this book, and I just finished it for the second time. The first time I read it was about 8 years ago, and still vividly remember many scenes. I think there are 3 characters with the same name as the main character, Alexander MacDonald, but I do recall being a bit confused by this, and the change from present, to childhood, to historical reference the first read through. Definitely one of my favorites. Great review. I like the image of all these people that are related and share so much many physical characteristics, so much so, that the main character's sister's children are recognized as while walking down the street in Calgary.