No Great Mischief

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Alexander MacDonald guides us through his family’s mythic past as he recollects the heroic stories of his people: loggers, miners, drinkers, adventurers; men forever in exile, forever linked to their clan. There is the legendary patriarch who left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 and resettled in “the land of trees,” where his descendents became a separate Nova Scotia clan. There is the team of brothers and cousins, expert miners in demand around the world for their dangerous skills. And there is Alexander and his ...
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Alexander MacDonald guides us through his family’s mythic past as he recollects the heroic stories of his people: loggers, miners, drinkers, adventurers; men forever in exile, forever linked to their clan. There is the legendary patriarch who left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 and resettled in “the land of trees,” where his descendents became a separate Nova Scotia clan. There is the team of brothers and cousins, expert miners in demand around the world for their dangerous skills. And there is Alexander and his twin sister, who have left Cape Breton and prospered, yet are haunted by the past. Elegiac, hypnotic, by turns joyful and sad, No Great Mischief is a spellbinding story of family, loyalty, exile, and of the blood ties that bind us, generations later, to the land from which our ancestors came.
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Editorial Reviews

Margaret Flanagan - Booklist
Thomas Mallon - The New York Times Book Review
“[MacLeod's] entire oeuvre . . . [is] a new land that [readers'] imaginations can seize like a manifest destiny.”
Alice Munro
“You will have scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever.”
Los Angeles Times
“His writing, graceful and elegiac, has the resonance of Steinbeck, and the violence is as raw and unchecked. But his pictures—of the men, the land and their fate—are more fragile, like old photographs pulled from a wallet. Endlessly creased, they will fall apart unless you unfold them with great care and patience—which MacLeod does beautifully.”
Alice Munro
“You will have scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever.”
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
A "fantastic" multigenerational tale of the Scottish MacDonald clan, who immigrated to Cape Breton in the late 18th century and the legacy they left behind. "A story told so beautifully, I was transfixed and transported." MacLeod's "wonderful use of language," and his "ability to paint pictures with words," slowed our usually frantically reading reviewers down, who "enjoyably lingered" over MacLeod's "amazing storytelling abilities." "I'll recommend this to all my customers!"
Library Journal
From the moment Alexander MacDonald sets out along Highway 3 in southwestern Ontario to visit his alcoholic brother living in a cheap Toronto lodging house, this sturdily textured debut novel never hesitates or meanders. There are plenty of diverse characters, changing scenes, and gripping incidents to keep it rolling. Four generations of MacDonalds move through the pages of this book--from the first to arrive in Cape Breton from Scotland in 1779 to narrator Alexander, an orthodontist, and his siblings. MacLeod, who has been heralded in his native Canada as a master of the short story, exhibits a remarkable ability to create and handle an intricate plot that goes back and forth between past and present. Though sentimentality plays a considerable part in the unfolding of the drama, MacLeod's clever writing disciplines and subdues it. The book deserves to be a big popular success.--A.J. Anderson, GSLIS, Simmons Coll., Boston Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
[A] gorgeous celebration of family nostalgia and its staying power...MacLeod writes with stunning precision about the way these people build their own legends in the branches of triumph and tragedy. Before long, their family tree seems to include us, too.
The Christian Science Monitor
Hal Jensen
No Great Mischief is a lesson in the art of storytelling. Not only does it show by example (which it does magnificently), but its subject is the way stories work, the sources of their power and the means by which they are kept alive.
The Times Literary Supplement
Kirkus Reviews
There are many beautiful moments in this limpid and haunting novel, the first full-length fiction from the Canadian author of two highly praised story collections: The Salt Gift of Blood (1998, not reviewed) and the paperback As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1996). Those titles hint at the lyricism that is MacLeod's special gift—and that flowers impressively as the narrator, Toronto orthodontist Alexander MacDonald, looks wistfully back at the history of his family's emigration from Scotland in the 17th century, the life and legacy of his ancestor `Calum Ruadh` ('red-haired Calum`), Alexander's own upbringing by his doting paternal grandparents (after an accident on a treacherous ice floe takes the lives of his parents and an older brother), and his later relationships with his other surviving brothers, rough-hewn miners whose wayward energies propel them into alcoholism, and even murder. Alexander's vacillations between his sophisticated, comfortable present-day `world` and that of his stoical family are memorably captured in frequent shifts between present and past. These give the tale a marvelous variety and color; but redundant contrasts between the romantic-chaotic "then` and the drab `now` (frequently spelled out in lax conversations between Alexander and his twin sister) only make us impatient to return to the MacDonald clan's earlier days. The retold family stories are without exception gripping and quite moving, and are graced by stunning little gasps and leaps of felicitous phrasing (for example, at the funeral of a brother killed in a mine accident, Alexander muses `On the last day of his life he had been deeper in the earth than he now reposed in death`). If allofMacLeod's debut operated at this level of intuition and eloquence, the novel would be a masterpiece. As it stands, it confirms his reputation as one of Canada's most sensitive and stylish writers of fiction.
From the Publisher
“MacLeod is MacLeod, the greatest living Canadian writer and one of the most distinguished writers in the world. No Great Mischief is the book of the year – and of this decade. It is a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.”
Globe and Mail

No Great Mischief is one of the best Canadian novels I’ve read in years. It’s a tale of truth about people who care for one another and for the living world around them. A lament and a celebration, it will endure.”
–Farley Mowat

“This is a simply great novel. The simplicity lies in the device of the plot. The greatness lies in its scope, imagination, and execution.…His message beguiles, his prose captivates, and his narrative never loosens a deceptively gentle grip.”
–Glasgow Herald

“You will find scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever.”
–Alice Munro

“A triumph of fiction.…[MacLeod’s] storytelling is taut and lucid. His characters possess strength and depth. They linger in your mind.”
The Economist (U.K.)

“[A] mesmerizing, evocative story, infused with grace and wisdom.”
–Jury Citation, Trillium Award

“A powerful, intricate work.…”
Toronto Sun

“MacLeod’s world of Cape Breton…has become a permanent part of my own inner library.”
New York Times Book Review

No Great Mischief feels like a book that’s gone deep and means to stay.”
Quill & Quire (starred review)

“A masterpiece of storytelling.”
Time Out (London)

“This book is a jewel.…Destined to become one of the most memorable Canadian novels of the decade.…”
Hamilton Spectator

“A haunting and beautiful book.…MacLeod’s descriptions are remarkable.”
–Montreal Gazette

No Great Mischief is a lesson in the art of storytelling.”
Times Literary Supplement

“The work speaks of great loves…and tragic losses that will move readers in every corner of the world.”
Publishers Weekly

“A robust novel, celebrating all of the joys and tragedies life has to offer.”
Edmonton Journal

“MacLeod’s world, hard and real, has also the feel of resonant myth about it, enduring truths couched in pellucid prose.”
The Scotsman

“A great, hauntingly beautiful and enduring book.”
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“Few readers will fail to be moved by No Great Mischief.”
Toronto Star

“[MacLeod’s] writing is of a quality that most writers can only dream of achieving.”
National Post

“The book is pervaded by humour and colour, intensely vivid, and very, very moving.”
The Independent (U.K.)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393341195
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 283
  • Sales rank: 156,961
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Alistair MacLeod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1936 and raised among an extended family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He still spends his summers in Inverness County, writing in a clifftop cabin looking west towards Prince Edward Island. In his early years, to finance his education he worked as a logger, a miner, and a fisherman, and writes vividly and sympathetically about such work.

His early studies were at the Nova Scotia Teachers College, St. Francis Xavier, the University of New Brunswick and Notre Dame, where he took his Ph.D. He has also taught creative writing at the University of Indiana. Working alongside W.O. Mitchell, he was an inspiring teacher to generations of writers at the Banff Centre. In the spring of 2000, MacLeod retired from the University of Windsor, Ontario, where he was a professor of English.

He has published two internationally acclaimed collections of short stories: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986). In 2000, these two books, accompanied by two new stories, were published in a single-volume edition entitled Island: The Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod. In 1999, MacLeod’s first novel, No Great Mischief, was published to great critical acclaim, and was on national bestseller lists for more than a year. The novel won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction, the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, The Trillium Award for Fiction, the CAA-MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction, and at the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards, MacLeod won for Fiction Book of the Year and Author of the Year. No Great Mischief was also a finalist for the Pearson Canada Reader’s Choice Award at The Word on the Street.

Alistair MacLeod and his wife, Anita, have six children. They live in Windsor.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario. In the splendid autumn sunshine the bounty of the land is almost overwhelming, as if it is the manifestation of a poem by Keats. Along Highway 3 the roadside stands are burdened down by baskets of produce and arrangements of plants and flowers. Signs invite you to "pick your own" and whole families can be seen doing exactly that: stooping and straightening or staggering with overflowing bushel baskets, or standing on ladders that reach into the trees of apple and of pear.

    On some of the larger farms much of the picking is done by imported workers; they too, often, in family groups. They do not "pick your own" but pick instead for wages to take with them when they leave. This land is not their own. Many of them are from the Caribbean and some are Mennonites from Mexico and some are French Canadians from New Brunswick and Quebec.

    On the land that has already been picked over, the farmers' tractors move across the darkening fields, ploughing down the old crops while preparing for the new. Flocks of hopeful and appreciative gulls follow raucously behind them.

    Once, outside of Leamington, my grandmother, who was visiting at the time, burst into tears at the sight of the rejected and overripe tomatoes which were being ploughed under. She wept for what she called "an awful waste" and had almost to be restrained from running into the fields to "save" the tomatoes from their fate in the approaching furrows. She was fifteen hundred miles from her preserving kettle, and hadspent decades of summers and autumns nurturing her few precious plants in rocky soil and in shortened growing seasons. In the fall she would take her few surviving green tomatoes and place and turn them on the windowsills, hoping they might ripen in the weakened sun which slanted through her windowpanes. To her they were precious and rare and hard to come by. The lost and wasted tomatoes which she saw outside of Leamington depressed my grandmother for days. She could not help it, I suppose. Sometimes it is hard to choose or not to choose those things which bother us at the most inappropriate of times.

    I think of this now as my car moves along this rich and golden highway on its way to my eventual destination of Toronto. It is a journey which I make on Saturdays, and it is a drive which I begin early in the morning although there really is no reason why it should begin at such an early time. In the fall and in the spring I take the longer but more scenic routes: Highway 2 and Highway 3 and even sometimes Highways 98 or 21. They are meandering and leisurely and there is something almost comforting in passing houses where the dogs still run down to the roadside to bark at the wheels of the passing cars — as if, for them, it were a real event. In the more extreme seasons of summer and winter, there is always the 401. The 401, as most people hearing this will know, is Ontario's major highway and it runs straight and true from the country that is the United States to the border of Quebec, which some might also consider another country. It is a highway built for the maximum movement of people and of goods and it is flat and boring and as efficient as can be. It is a sort of symbol, I suppose, if not of the straight and narrow at least of the very straight or "the one true way." You can only join it at certain places and if your destination is directly upon it, it will move you as neatly as the conveyor belt moves the tomatoes. It will be true to you if you are true to it and you will never, never, ever become lost.

    Regardless of the route of entrance, the realization of the city of Toronto is always something of a surprise. It is almost as if a new set of reflexes must be mastered to accommodate the stop and go of the increased traffic, and more careful thought must be given to the final destination.

    In the downtown area along Yonge Street and to the west, the anti-nuclear protestors are walking and carrying their signs. "One, two, three, four," they chant, "we don't want a nuclear war." "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to radiate." Marching parallel to them and on the opposite side of the street an equally determined group glowers across the strained division. "Pacifists, Communists Love You," "If You Don't Like What This Country Stands For, Go Somewhere Else," "Canada, Love It or Leave It," proclaim their signs.

    In the area around Queen Street West which runs between Yonge Street and Spadina Avenue, I begin to look more carefully and to drive more slowly, thinking that I might meet him in the street, almost as if he might be coming to meet me, regardless of the direction of my approach. But today he is not seen, so I manoeuvre my car for a short way through the back alleys with their chained-down garbage cans and occasionally chained-down dogs, and over broken glass which is so crushed and flattened it is now no threat or danger to any tire. The makeshift fire escapes and back stairways lean haphazardly and awkwardly against their buildings, and from the open doorways and windows a mixture of sounds comes falling down: music and songs from various countries and voices loud on the verge of quarrel and the sounds of yet more breaking glass.

    In the autumn sunshine, I lock my car in the afternoon alley and step between walls into the street crowded with bargain shoppers and barking proprietors and seekers of refuse. In the grimy windows hand-lettered cardboard signs offer almost everything, it seems, at less than its true worth.

    Between these storefront doors, there are often other doors that the casual person might not notice because they seem so commonplace. They are often painted brown and may or may not have numbers above them, often with one digit missing or hanging crookedly from their nails. When you open these doors, there may or may not be a row of mailboxes, some bearing names stuck on with grey adhesive tape. Almost all of these buildings, though, have a wooden stairway that leads steeply up to a hall lit by a yellow forty-watt bulb, and along this hallway and sometimes along other hallways above it are the people who live above the street-level stores. Contrary to the myth, few of the people who live here are the owners of the stores beneath them. They are, instead, people who do not own much of anything. Generally even their furniture, such as it is, is not their own and when they move, as they often do, they do not look in the Yellow Pages for any selection of moving companies.

    Although there are some couples, most of the people are single and most of them are men and most of them are beyond middle age. Sometimes there are whole corridors occupied by men only. They are generally in those buildings where the apartments are very small or consist of a single room. In such corridors there is a small bathroom at one end and it serves all the residents of the floor. It is the kind of bathroom where the lock never works and people who sit on the toilet hold one foot against the door to keep it closed. Sometimes potential users shout at the closed door, "Is there anybody in there?" much as they might if they were members of a large family in the early rush of pre-breakfast hours. Inside the bathroom the toilet paper is chained down by an elaborate system of interwoven links, and the dim light bulb is surrounded by a wire cage so it will not be stolen and taken back to one of the rooms. In the old salvaged sink, one of the taps will never shut off properly and there is generally a yellowed stain left by the constant trickle of the running water. Hot water is often scarce, and sometimes on the upper floors it does not exist at all.

    Behind the closed doors one can hear vague sounds. The most dominant one is, perhaps, that of men coughing and spitting. Almost all of the men smoke quite heavily, some of them rolling their own cigarettes, sitting in their underwear on the edges of their beds. There is also the sound of radios and of the very tiny portable television sets which sit on tables or on top of the nearly empty refrigerators. Few of the people eat very much. Many of the rooms do not contain stoves, or ones with workable ovens. Tomato soup is heated on top of hot plates and filled with crackers. The smell of burnt toast is often present, and sometimes jars of instant coffee or boxes of tea bags sit on windowsills or on archaic radiators beside packages of purchased cookies so laced with preservatives that they may sit there for months without any signs of change.

    It is into such a doorway that I turn now, leaving the sun behind me on the street. And it is such a stairway that I climb, towards the hallway above. This is the third time that he has lived at this address in recent years, circling back and making agreements with the landlord for whom he, at one time, did some work as a handyman. The landlord nearly always takes him back because he is reasonably dependable, and they have at least a few years of some sort of shared past. The landlord, who sells wine in brown paper bags to his tenants, has his own share of problems, which he is quite willing to share with anyone who will listen. It is not easy, he says, having tenants who move in the night without paying their rent; or who steal and sell some of the furniture he and his wife have provided; or who make duplicate keys to lend to their friends. It is not easy, he says, having the police call him at home in the evenings, when he is watching television, to report disturbances; and it is not easy for him when people stab one another with kitchen knives in quarrels over their wine; or when they are found dead in their urine-soaked beds, strangled and choked on strands of their own vomit, and he does not know any next of kin to contact. Generally, he says, the bodies are "given to science." "But," he adds, "that's the good thing about you. I always know who to contact — just in case." He is a short, portly man who has prospered greatly since coming from Europe as a child. He is proud of his children, who have all gone to university and who smile with perfect teeth from their pictures in his wallet.

    As I move down the hallway, I am troubled, as always, by the fear of what I might find. If my knock is unanswered and if the door is locked, I will listen with my ear close to the keyhole for the sound of his uneven breathing. If I do not hear that, I will go back to the street and the neighbourhood and visit the taverns where the draught beer glasses sit in sloppy unwiped puddles which drip onto the floor and where the men have trouble zipping up their trousers as they weave erratically out of the washrooms.

    But today when I knock, his voice says almost immediately, "Come in."

    "The door's locked," I say, after trying it.

    "Oh, just a minute," he says. "Just a minute." There is the sound of three unsteady steps and then a tremendous crash, followed by a silence.

    "Are you all right?" I ask.

    "Oh yes," comes the answer, "just a minute. I'll be right there."

    The lock is turned and the door is opened, and as I enter, he is standing there, holding on to the doorknob for support with both of his huge hands, swaying sideways as the door moves inward and towards him. He is in his sock feet, and his brown work pants are held up by a broad brown leather belt. He wears no outer shirt other than the white, now yellowed, woollen underwear which he wears during all seasons.

    "Ah," he says, speaking in a mixture of English and Gaelic. "Ah, 'ille bhig ruaidh, you've come at last." He steps backwards, pulling the door towards him and still clutching its knob for support. There is a gash above his left eyebrow, caused, it seems, from the crashing fall against the steel frame which protrudes beyond the mattress at the foot of his bed. The blood flows down his face beneath his ear, and then under his chin and down his neck until it vanishes into the hair on his chest beneath his underwear. It does not drip on the floor, although one almost expects to see it, eventually, perhaps emerging beneath the cuffs of his trouser legs. But for now it seems to follow the contours of his face, as the mountain river follows the land before falling into the sea.

    "Did you hurt yourself?" I say, looking around for something such as Kleenex to staunch the flow.

    "No," he says. "What do you mean?" and then following the direction of my gaze he takes his left hand from the doorknob and touches his cheek. He looks at the blood on his fingertips with surprise. "No," he says. "It is nothing, just a scratch."

    He relinquishes the doorknob completely and staggers backwards until he falls in a jangling sitting position upon the protesting springs of the unmade bed. When his hands are removed from the doorknob they shake violently; but now, sitting on the edge of the bed, he places them on either side of him and holds the bedframe's steel. He hangs on to it fiercely, until his huge and broken knuckles whiten, and then finally his trembling hands are stilled.

    "As long as I have something to hang on to," he says, swaying back and forth, "I am okay."

    I look around the small familiar room and its spartan neatness. There is no evidence that he has eaten today and there does not seem to be any food visible. In a wastebasket beside the sink, there is one of those amber bottles in which oversweet and low-priced wine is sold. It is empty.

    "Do you want anything to eat?" I ask.

    "No," he says, then after a pause, "nothing to eat." He emphasizes the last word and smiles. His eyes are as dark as my own, and his hair, which was black, is now a rich, luxurious white. It is the only thing about him that has continued to flourish, rising above his forehead in succeeding waves and, because it is untrimmed, now extending over his ears and too far down his neck. It is almost a sign, as is the case with so many men who eat too little and drink too much. Almost as if the alcohol were a mysterious kind of plant food, causing the topmost leaves to flourish while the plant itself grows numb.

    He looks at me expectantly, smiling in the old affectionate way. "My cheque does not come until Monday," he says.

    "Okay," I say. "I'm going out to the car. I'll be right back."

    "All right," he says. "Leave the door open."

    I go out into the hall and past the quiet closed doors and down the stairway into the street. The sun is shining brightly, which is almost a surprise, after the dimly lit interior. I pass through the space between the buildings to my car. Opening the trunk, I take out the bottle of brandy which I have purchased the night before in case of these exact circumstances. Brandy always works the fastest. I put it inside my sports coat and press it tightly against my ribs with my left arm and then retrace my route. The door is ajar and he is still sitting on the bed's edge, hanging on to control his shaking hands.

    "There is a shot glass in the cupboard," he says as I take out the brandy bottle. I go to the cupboard to look for the shot glass. It is easy to find as there is not much else. It is a souvenir of Cape Breton with an outline of the island on it and some of the place names. It is a gift to him from my children, purchased as part of a bar set two summers ago. "Uncle Calum will like this," they said, being too young to intend anything as sophisticated as irony.

    I pour the brandy into the shot glass and walk across to the bed to offer it to him. He removes his right hand from the bed and grasps the glass, but it flies out of his hand immediately, bouncing against my thigh and falling to the floor. It does not break, and now I can see and feel the stain of the brandy as it spreads its dark outline on the left leg of my trousers. He replaces his hand quickly on the bed, as if it has been burned.

    The mug without the handle does not work any better, although he is able to grasp it with both hands for a moment before the contents spill on his own crotch and between his legs to seep into his bed. I go a third time to the cupboard and get a plastic bowl, the unbreakable kind that mothers buy for babies in high chairs. I splash some of the brandy into the bottom of the bowl and take it to him. He places both of his huge hands beneath it and raises it to his lips while I continue to steady the rim that is closest to me. He makes slurping sounds as he tilts his head back and the brandy gurgles down his throat. Because he has tipped the bowl too far some of the brandy spills along the outside of his face and runs down his chin to mingle with the blood still flowing from the gash. I splash some more brandy into the bowl and give it to him. Almost immediately it begins to take effect. The shaking of his hands becomes less agitated as his dark eyes become more clear. Like the patient who receives the anaesthetic, his fear and trembling are reduced.

    "Ah, 'ille bhig ruaidh," he says. "We have come a long way, you and I, and there are no hard feelings. Do you remember Christy?"

    "Yes," I say. "Of course I remember Christy."

    "Ah, poor Christy. How she always kept her part of the bargain." He pauses and then changes the subject. "I have been thinking the last few days of Calum Ruadh," he says with an almost apologetic shrug.

    "Oh yes," I say.

    "He was our great-great-great-grandfather, right?"

    "Yes, he was."

    "Ah yes," he says. "I wonder what he looked like."

    "I don't know," I say, "other than that he was supposed to be big and of course ruadh, red. He probably looked like the rest of us."

    "Like you, maybe," he says.

    "Well, you're big," I smile, "and you have Calum, his name."

    "Yes, I have his name, but you have his colour." He pauses. "I wonder if his grave is still there?"

    "Yes, but it is very near to the cliff's edge now. The point of land is wearing away. Some years faster than others, depending on the storms."

    "Yes, I imagine so," he says. "It was always so stormy there. It is almost as if his grave is moving out to sea, isn't it?"

    "Yes, I guess that's one way of looking at it. Or the sea coming in to meet him. But the big boulder with his inscription on it is still there. We had the letters rechiselled and then painted them in with a new marine waterproof paint. They will last for a while."

    "Yes, for a while. Although they'll eventually wear away too, and someone will have to recut them again — like before." He pauses. "It is as if with the passing of time he moves deeper into the rock."

    "Yes," I say.

    "Deeper into the rock before he falls into the sea, perhaps? Do you remember how when the gales would blow, the spray from the sea would drench the boulder until it glistened?"


    "And when the boulder was wet you could see the letters more clearly?"

   "Yes." I say. "That's right. You could."

   "Yes, more clearly in the storm than in fair weather. I have been thinking of that now, although I can't remember if I ever thought about it then."

    He gets up from the bed and retrieves the mug without the handle from the floor. He is steadier now, and his hands no longer tremble. He takes the brandy bottle and sloshes some of the contents into the mug which a few moments ago he was unable to control. He is rising out of one state into another. Next he will achieve a kind of plateau where he will level off for perhaps an hour and then, depending on how much more alcohol he consumes, he will begin to go down what seems like the other side of the mountain. The late afternoon and early evening may or may not see him spitting blood or swaying in the shadows as he attempts to urinate in the sink, fumbling at the front of his trousers with his right hand while supporting himself with his left against the wall. And I will have to leave him then, to follow my headlights through the city and then back down the highway. Each of us repeating his own small history.

    "Didn't I mention this to you the last time you were here?" he asks, breaking my thoughts and returning to the subject of Calum Ruadh and his gravestone.

    "No," I say at first, hoping to save him embarrassment, and then, "Yes, yes you did."

    "Ah yes," he says, "'ille bhig ruaidh. Will you have a drink? Have a drink with me?" He offers me my own brandy.

    "No," I say. "No, I don't think so. I'd rather not. I have a long drive ahead of me. I have to go back."

    "Ah yes, you have to go back." He gets up, still holding the brandy bottle, and walks to the window which looks out on the back alley, on the erratic fire escapes and the resting garbage and the ground-down glass.

    "It is a nice day out there," he says, as if looking at another country. "A nice September day. The blackfish are jumping off the Calum Ruadh's Point. I can see them: the way they shine, so black and glistening. But they had better not come in too close. Do you remember the one who came to shore?"

    "Yes, I remember him."

    "And how we hoped that the storm would take him back out, but it didn't."

    "Yes, he couldn't get back out."

    "No," he says, turning from the window, "he couldn't. Do you remember our parents?"

    "I'm not sure," I say. "Some things. I'm not sure how many of the memories are real and how many I've sort of made up from other people's stories."

    "Ah yes," he says. "And your sister, Catriona, the same."

    "Yes," I say. "The same."

    He drinks again. This time directly from the bottle, which is now emptying rapidly.

    "Poor Grandma and Grandpa," he says. "They were good to you. As good as they knew how."

    "Yes," I say. "They were."

    "`Always look after your own blood,' Grandma said." His mood changes in an instant and he seems suddenly angry and suspicious. "I suppose that's why you're here?"

    I am caught off guard by the sudden shift, trapped in the net of my own guilt and history.

    "No," I say. "Why no. Not really. No, it's not that way at all."

    I look towards him, trying to gauge his mood as he sways slightly on the balls of his sock feet before me. The golden September sunshine slants indirectly through the window behind his back and seems to silhouette him as the dust motes flicker in its beams. He appears like the actor in the spotlight of the afternoon performance. He is poised and potentially dangerous, and in spite of all the years of abuse, his body still responds to the old tense signals. He rocks forward now on his toes and then backwards on his heels while holding the brandy bottle lightly in his left hand, as if he might throw it. The fingers of his right hand open and close slowly and rhythmically; now into a fist and now into an extended hand. Then he laughs and the moment is past.

    "Ah yes," he says. "Yes, 'ille bhig ruaidh. I was only thinking. Go and get some more liquor. Brandy if you want, or wine or beer, and we will drink away the day together. And the night."

    "All right," I say, stepping towards the door, perhaps too quickly, and feeling ashamed for seeming so eager to abandon the room I have driven so many miles to enter.

    "What would you like? Beer? Wine?"

    "Oh," he says. "It doesn't make much difference. It doesn't make much difference."

    "Okay, I won't be too long."

    "No big rush," he says. "Take your time. I am not going anywhere and I have this." He swings the amber brandy bottle and its contents back and forth in his left hand. "I will sit here and wait."

    I go out into the hallway and close the door behind me and then slump with temporary relief. It is the slump of students when they close the door of the examination room behind them, or of those who leave the dentist's office after being told, "The fillings will be two weeks from today — but not today." Or of the witness released from his cross-examination in the box.

    As I stand in the hallway I hear him as he begins to sing on the other side of the door. He sings softly but resolutely — singing to himself in the manner that the drunken or the near-drunken often use to communicate with themselves:

"Chi mi bhuam, fada bhuam, Chi mi bhuam, ri muir lain; Chi mi Ceap Breatuinn mo luaidh Fada bhuam thar an t-sail."

He is singing "Cumha Ceap Breatuinn," "Lament for Cape Breton," which is one of those communal songs often sung by large groups of people or in situations where one person sings the verse and the group sings the chorus. It means something like:

I see far, far away. I see far o'er the tide; I see Cape Breton, my love, Far away o'er the sea.

    As I walk down the hallway I move out of earshot of the singer who recedes with each of my steps, but as I begin to descend the steep, sad stairs, beneath the forty-watt bulb, the song continues and I am almost surprised to realize it is no longer coming from him but from somewhere deep within me. It rises up to the extent that my own lips move in an almost reflex action:

"Gu bheil togradh ann am intinn Bhi leibh mar a bha Ged tha fios agam us cinnt Ribh nach till mi gu brath."

There's a longing in my heart now To be where I was Though I know that it's quite sure I never shall return.

    It is as if there is no break between his ending and my beginning; although the subject matter is much different, the verses and chorus come easily to my mind in the way, I suppose, that middle-aged former boy scouts remember the verses of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" and "Oh, My Darling Clementine." Sounds planted and dormant and flowering at the most unexpected times.

    I am a twentieth-century man, I think, as I step out onto the street. And then another phrase of my grandmother's comes to mind, "whether I like it or not." I am a middle-aged man this September and indeed there is not much of the twentieth century left. If I continue to journey towards its end I will be fifty-five when the century closes, which is either young or old, perhaps, depending on your own point of view and attitude towards age and time. "We will live a long, long time," said my grandfather of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, "if we are given the chance — and if we want to." I try to square my shoulders in the September sun — as if I were auditioning for the part of "twentieth-century man" in a soon-to-be-released spectacular. "Ah," haunts the voice of my oldest brother, "ah, 'ille bhig ruaidh. You've come at last. We have come a long way, you and I, and there are no hard feelings." The voice pauses. "I have been thinking the last few days of Calum Ruadh. I wonder what he looked like?"

    "I don't know," I say. "I don't know. Only what I have been told."

    "Ah," says the voice. "Stay with me. Stay with me. You are still the gille beag ruadh."

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Reading Group Guide

1. Why might the author have chosen the narrator Alexander to be an orthodontist by profession? Is his choice of profession connected in some way to Calum's infected tooth episode during their boyhood [p. 79]? What is Alexander's attitude towards his own profession? Is he proud or ashamed? He writes that he hopes to make his patients more beautiful than they were before [p. 62] or, as his grandma might say, he is "in the business of 'improving on God' " [p. 103]. How does Alexander's profession reflect a kind of attempt to find an explanation for his past or to escape from it?

2. When Alexander first arrives at Calum's apartment, Calum accuses him of being there because of their grandma's dictum: "Always look after your own blood" [p. 14]. Does Alexander in fact visit Calum out of obligation? Guilt? What is his relationship with his older brother? Is either one the man who has "everything or nothing" [p. 71]? How would you describe the author's treatment of the other two surviving brothers, and how does it affect the reader's understanding of Alexander's relationship with his family?

3. Alexander thinks it is not important which liquor he buys for his dying alcoholic brother, rather he reflects, "What is important is that I will return" [p. 170]. Is Alexander's trip to his brother's apartment that afternoon more than just a physical experience? Is it in any way a spiritual homecoming?

4. From an early age, when femininity distinguishes her from the older brothers [p. 74], Alexander's sister's role in the narrative is unique. Why does Alexander choose to tell us about his family and his Scottish heritagethrough his twin sister's personal recollections of their family life and her revealing trip back to Scotland? How would you characterize his relationship with his sister? What is the significance of the fact that the author refers to Alexander's sister by her given name, Catherine, only once [p. 109], and that occurrence appears not directly from Alexander, but in a letter from their uncle and aunt?

5. In the beginning, the narrator explains, "This is a story of lives which turned out differently than was intended" [p. 57]. Is it really a matter of lives turning out differently than intended, or are the MacDonald children's lives a result of the choices they have made? Calum looks at his parents' death this way: "If I had been with them I might have saved them" [p. 209]. But Alexander has a different perspective: "If you had been with them you would have gone down too" [p. 209]. Could Calum's life have turned out differently if he had felt lucky, instead of guilty? Are Alexander's and Calum's lives impacted more by their own personal past or by their entire family's legacy?

6. Does the saying on the Toronto woman's T-shirt-- "Living in the past is not living up to our potential" [p. 60]--mirror the message of the novel? How does the past hold back the MacDonald family?

7. At the end of the novel, Grandma describes Grandpa and their "other grandfather" as a balance to each other [p. 264]. How would you describe the relationship between the grandfathers? Is it like any of the other relationships among family members in the clan? How are the grandfathers' different feelings about their past and their views of history indicative of their different characters?

8. As related in the novel, General Wolfe describes the members of the MacDonald clan who fought under his command at Quebec by writing in a letter, "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall."[p. 237]. According to historians, Wolfe was referring to the two motives for recruiting the Highlanders to the British Army for King George in the Seven Years' War: their stamina as well as the possibility of removing them as a threat to the monarchy. Alexander's grandfather characterized Wolfe's description as a "cynical comment" [p. 109], and his sister likens the MacDonald clan to a "great sports team which may have lost faith in its management or its coach, but are out there anyway in the bloodied mud and the smoke, giving their hearts and their sinew not for 'management' but for the shared history of one another" [pp. 237-8]. Is Wolfe's description of the MacDonalds a source of pride or a burden to the family? What is the significance of the author's allusion to Wolfe's quote for the title of the novel?

9. Why do the family members speak Gaelic to each other more and more as they get older?

10. What role does Alexander play in the Fern Picard incident? How is he both an active participant and an outside observer? In what other places in the novel is he both participant and observer?

11. Does Alexander judge Calum's behavior? Fern Picard's? Alexander MacDonald's from San Francisco? The narrator comments that sending the stolen money back to Fern Picard is "the fitting thing to do" [p. 261]. Is that an appropriate choice of words under the circumstances? Is there a presence of morality in the novel? Does Alexander ever give the reader an idea of what he thinks is right and wrong?

12. How would you describe the concept of time in the novel? How do the repeated incidents in which clann Chalum Ruaidh members recognize each other affect the concept of time? Is time linear, or, as in the darkness of the mines, does time seem "to compress and expand almost simultaneously" [p. 199]?

13. When Alexander's brother returns to Scotland, in a matter of minutes a fellow clan member spots him and invites him to be his business partner, saying, "If only the ships had come from France" [p. 263]. The family members greet each other with Robert the Bruce's quote from 1314, "My hope is constant in thee, Clan Donald" [pp. 88, 11, 202]. Are these incidents an example of how the family continues to stick together despite their hardships and differences? Does it sometimes seem as if the family's reliving of their defeat borders on an absurd, almost existentialist condition?

14. What is the significance of the author's descriptions of the migrant workers in Ontario and of the Zulu and Masai tribes in Africa? Are all of these races displaced peoples--like clann Chalum Ruaidh? How are they different? Is the description of Alexander's wife's brief family history similar or different from these other people's [p. 274]? What is the significance of the point in the narrative at which the author chooses to place these particular passages?

15. What is the author's attitude towards the miners? How are the miners' lives similar to those of the migrant workers?

16. Echoing like refrains throughout the novel are the mottoes "We are all better when we're loved" and "Stick with your blood." How are these two concepts manifest in Alexander's family? What relationships in the tale are governed by the former credo and which ones by the latter?

17. What is the point of Alexander MacDonald having stolen the wallet that precipitated Calum's attack on Fern, resulting in his ultimate conviction for second-degree murder? Do the MacDonalds simultaneously survive and perish because they "stick with their blood"?

18. The author frequently uses compound metaphors, such as the many metaphors for change on page 72. At what other points in the narrative does the author use this style of compounding metaphors? How does his use of both compound and recurrent metaphors as well as other stylistic devices, such as repetition, reinforce the themes of the novel? How does the author use Gaelic language and music to set the style and tone of the novel? In what ways does the novel itself mimic a Gaelic song?

19. Why do the men of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, in particular Calum, have such strong relationships with animals? What does it say about their characters? How do their relationships with animals compare to their relationships with other men? The author writes of the clann Chalum Ruaidh dogs, "It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard" [p. 57]. Does this describe the dogs or their masters?

20. Alexander explains, "The 'lamp of the poor' is hardly visible in urban southwestern Ontario, although there are many poor who move disjointedly beneath it. And the stars are seldom clearly seen above the pollution of prosperity" [p. 192]. What is the narrator's attitude towards affluence--his own and that of others?

21. The author writes, "In the waters near Glencoe perhaps the mythical 'king of the herring' still swims. If he exists, perhaps he is as complicated as many other leaders. He is regarded as a friend to some, but those who follow him may do so at their peril. In any case there are no MacDonalds who wait for him and his bounty, and perhaps without their beliefs he is just another fish, who should be careful where he swims" [p. 274]. How does this view of the clan simultaneously capture Grandpa's and Grandfather's different views of their common history? What is more crippling to Alexander's family: the lack of beliefs or the fear of not having any?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2002

    Raw and poetic

    Prose bordering on verse that illuminates and connects family history and land. A page turner virtually without 'plot', the cadences of the sentences and the evocation of place make you read on.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2002

    Beautiful and melancholy

    MacLeod exhibits enormous skill in describing the complicated concrescence of a family displaced in time and distance. Brilliant writing. It has the feeling of autumn built into its very fiber.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2001

    Astonishing and Sad

    What most impresses me about this novel is how gently yet irrevocably it moves through the life and memory of the protagonist (one of many Alexander MacDonalds) and his family, both known and remembered. Starting in the time of the Highland Clearances of Scotland (which did not destroy the MacDonalds' sense of clan and kinship), it moves through their settlement on Cape Breton and slow accommodation to the modern world. The twentieth century, sadly, seems almost certain to accomplish what destitution and violence cannot: the destruction of the clan's sense of itself. Through lovely metaphors, frequent echoes of earlier events, and richly simple details, McLeod gives the reader a keen appreciation for what one character in the story describes as 'the difference between what is accurate and what is true.'

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2004

    Student Sticks with it!!!

    i read this book for school and couldn't stand it the first time around but i perservered as it was the best out of a bad bunch to choose from and i have fallen for this well written family saga. Upon reading this novel for a second time i was able to fully appreciate MacLeod's words and ideas. A book all teenagers should read, it may make them appreciate what they have. I know thats what happened with me!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2003

    escape to cape breton

    I was whisked away to the ice off the black rocks of Cape Breton in between the pages of this fabulous book. I am amazed at the language and flow of the prose in each of the different themes in this novel. Having heard Alister read from his pages and having had an opportunity to visit the coast line of Cape Breton - I am a fan of his writing and the Cape forever. Any Canadian with brothers and sisters that has memories of childhood will be transported in time to their own past and the grown ups they watched from the kitchen floor. I highly recommend this to anyone who has been or wished they could go to the east coast - or to anyone who enjoys a fabulous trip into the trip from childhood to adulthood and the influence of family on the very core of our being. Catherine

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2003

    Blood is Thicker than Water: Beannachd leibh

    MacLeod has a gift. This novel lives up to the expectations placed upon it, being the first novel of a master of the short story. The author masterfully brings to life the cultural heritage of Cape Breton, and in celebrating its passing will touch a chord in modern readers the world over. Forget Clancy-esque "fast food" expectations of a novel and appreciate not only the incredible skill but also obvious passion and emotion that has gone into this book. It reads as a string of memories and may seem somewhat muddled at first, but bear with it and take your time- it is leading somewhere!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2003

    I Cannot Recommend This Enough

    It is a great novel at one level. At another level it has a bit of the history of North America embedded in it that I never knew, and I know quite a bit about the so-called 'French and Indian Wars.' It is absolutely fascinating. A great read. And many great quotes that my family uses in everyday conversation because they are so powerful. What a great writer! Wow!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2003

    English Class Student Likes

    This novel is very global it will jump to from part to part and you will not really understand it untill you have finished the whole book. In the beggining it is a little dry in excitment but don't put it down it gets better. by the end you won't want it to be done

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2002

    No Great Mischeif

    This book was horrible! It was confusing, pointless and very graphic. I did not enjoy it at all. The beginning was a bit interesting but innapropriate but then he became a child, and then an adult, and then a teenager, then an adult and he changed so often that I didn't know what was going on. Don't buy it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2001


    Wow picked this book up by chance and read it in 3 nights, a moving and lyrical story that stirs your heart and beckons us all to look at our own past.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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