I was surprised to realize that No Great Mischief is Alistair MacLeod’s only novel. He’s a well-known name in Canadian literature but his reputation comes largely from his short stories. In his novel he displays the same careful prose – each word chosen with deliberation and intent.
Like the rest of his writing, No Great Mischief is set in Cape Breton. The novel’s main character is Alexander MacDonald, better known as gille beag ruadh, (Gaelic for “little red-headed boy). He is one of multiple Alexander MacDonalds in his family – the clan of Calum Ruadh. Slowly, as our narrator, he unfolds the story of his family, all the way back to their shared ancestor, Calum Ruadh, who arrived in Canada at the age of fifty-five with his many sons and daughters. It is a complicated web of family, slowly spreading across the country as time and culture changes, but remaining fiercely loyal to the legend of Calum Ruadh and each other. Red-hair and twins run in the family, both of which our narrator has. He is also an orphan, a toddler when his parents were killed in a winter accident. While he and his twin sister were taken in by his grandparents, three older brothers were left on their own. Independent and yet protected within the family, growing up wild and unstoppable, until eventually, inevitably, tragedy strikes.
This all unfolds slowly, methodically. So slowly, in fact, that the story feels like it has very little plot. In the present tense, our narrator is visiting his oldest brother at a run-down apartment in Toronto. A lot of the present action involves him standing in a liquor store, trying to decide what to buy. (That part’s about as interesting as it sounds.) Fortunately, the real action of this tale unfolds in the past. In our narrator’s youth, living and working with his brothers. What family loyalty brings and what it takes.
No Great Mischief offers a snapshot of a family, of Canada (at least, a certain part of it), of immigration and how life changes – both for an individual and on a larger scale.