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Book Review

A Canadian Family Saga of Dispossession

NO GREAT MISCHIEF By Alistair MacLeod; W.W. Norton: 288 pages, $23.95


If history, as it has been said, is written by its victors, leave it to fiction to consider the fate of the defeated.

No less than three centuries ago, a time seemingly far removed from today, an English general, James Wolfe, was preparing to attack the French stronghold at Quebec, one campaign in a nasty seven-year war fought on foreign soil. In a letter to one of his captains, he praised and dismissed the Scottish soldiers in his army: "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country," he wrote, "and no great mischief if they fall."

A tossed-off line, to be sure, but one that has great resonance for Alistair MacLeod, who has chosen this singular contempt to stand for the victors and for the defeated in their dance through time. Though his story may be about Cape Bretoners eking out a life on the rocky plains of eastern Canada centuries later, his subject is the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, exiles with histories invisible to all but themselves.

It begins with a family, and it begins many generations ago when Calum MacDonald, seeking to escape the violence of his homeland, left Scotland, bound for Nova Scotia with six children from his first marriage (his first wife deceased) and six from his second marriage (his second wife soon to die in the voyage). His was a hard landing in the New World, crying as he touched the earth again, crying for the turn of fate that left him a widower in a hard land.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 21, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Battle date--In the Aug. 31 book review of Alistair MacLeod's "No Great Mischief," the date for the battle of Culloden in Scotland was incorrect. The battle was fought in 1746.

His grief dogged the steps of his children and their children and their children's children--upon whom MacLeod fixes his focus. Alexander MacDonald, of Calum's clan, is a dentist living and working in southwestern Ontario. When the novel opens, he is visiting his older brother in Toronto, at once a mission of mercy--to supply him with some brandy to ease his alcoholic pain--and a mission of remembering as he walks the streets looking for a package store and considering all that brought him to this point.

It is a remarkable journey. The facts are simple. He was 3 years old when he and his twin sister lost their parents and a brother in a sudden March thaw. Raised by their paternal grandparents, Alexander and his sister were the "lucky, unlucky" ones; the fate of their older brothers, ages 14, 15 and 16, is less ambiguous. "[T]oo old to be children," as their grandmother said, "and still too young to be like men," they lived alone, apart from the others, in a boozy wildness of their own sad making. It's a hardscrabble life, fishing in the waters off the point, caring for animals and working haphazardly in the winter, and drinking--always drinking--until as adults, they land jobs in a uranium mine sinking shafts on the edge of the Canadian Shield.

Yet they are not so lost as to forget their history, a history carved so deeply into their souls that the contempt voiced by Wolfe three centuries ago still burns within them. In their songs and in their stories, they live in a Scotland they never saw and in the history they never knew: Bannockburn, Killiecrankie, Glencoe--places where their fathers' lives are written in blood--and most fatefully, Culloden Moor, where in 1745 Wolfe and the English slaughtered the Scots who were waiting and hoping for the French to save them. The French never arrived, and men like Calum were forced to flee to a new world. Others served under the general's contempt and helped deliver the French to him in Quebec.

Yet nothing, as MacLeod makes clear, can keep the past from overtaking the present. The year is 1968. When a cousin is killed in a mine, Alexander takes his place, joining the brothers he never knew, and together they run into trouble with the French Canadians who work the opposite shift in the mine. A long-standing feud between two men erupts in a drunken fight that leaves one dead and another sentenced to life.

"It is hard when looking at the pasts of other people to understand the fine points of their lives," Alexander reflects. "It is difficult to know the exact shading of dates which were never written down and to know the intricacies of events which we have not lived through ourselves but only viewed from the distances of time and space."

It is MacLeod's attempt to get the shadings just right that make "No Great Mischief" such a satisfying book. 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.

History is rich with irony, and its lessons show how capricious fortune can be. The human heart is more predictable; memory always exacts a price, and no greater price is paid than by the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, exiles among us who can never forget.

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