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Friday, July 04, 2008

No Great Mischief


This is my first book for John Mutford's Second Canadian Book Challenge, a challenge that I undertook hoping to discover some new authors and books I might have otherwise missed. This first one makes me glad that I signed up.


The MacDonald clan may have arrived in Cape Breton more than two centuries ago but their hearts are still firmly anchored in the Scotland from which they came. Their family history has been so religiously passed from one generation to the next that Calum MacDonald, who brought his family to Canada in 1779, seems as alive to its members as the brother or cousin sitting next to them at the dinner table.


For more than two hundred years the MacDonalds have made their livings with their hands and their backs, working as farmers, lumberjacks, lighthouse caretakers, and uranium miners, never afraid to take on the toughest or most dangerous jobs available to them. But no matter how difficult life at times got for some of them, the family always took care of its own and none of them ever forgot that they were part of the MacDonald clan. Their family loyalty was a fierce one and it was never questioned.


No Great Mischief is largely told in flashback form by its narrator, Alexander MacDonald, a successful orthodontist who as the book begins is in Toronto checking on his alcoholic brother, Calum, who seems to be slowly drinking himself to death. Alexander’s visits to Toronto involve sharing old memories with his brother and leaving a little cash and alcohol behind to help Calum make it through the rest of his week. How Calum has reached his dreadful condition is a long, sad story but it is only one part of the MacDonald family saga.


No Great Mischief is a combination of historical fiction and family saga and it is a bit unusual in the sense that it focuses only on the MacDonalds who originally came to Canada and on those living there at the moment, with very little being told of the generations connecting them. But what a story it is because Alistair MacLeod has filled it with characters and incidents that will be long remembered by his readers.


The present day MacDonalds are held together by the narrator’s grandparents, two grandfathers and a grandmother, three people who despite their differences share a deep and loving respect for each other. The grandfathers could hardly be more different, one being an earthy man who loves his beer and his wife, the other living alone with his books and historical research. It is these three who get the next two generations of MacDonalds through the tragedy of sudden death that comes their way over the decades.


The MacDonalds are not a family that will be easily forgotten but the highlight of the book is perhaps MacLeod’s vivid recreation of life in the uranium mining camps of the 1960s. That unique, dangerous and insulated little world was a revelation to me, one of those places I am happy to have visited in a book and missed in the real world.


But for one flaw, I would have rated this book higher than the 4.0 rating I settled on - some of the long conversations between the narrator and his twin sister have a staged quality to them. They are packed with so much historical detail, and read more as recitation than conversation, that the reader cannot help but feel a distracting switch in tone. Luckily, this does not happen often and can be easily enough overlooked.


Rated at: 4.0

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