No Great Mischief

No Great Mischief

Alistair Macleod

Fiction

Amazon.com ReviewFor the MacDonalds, the past is not a foreign country. This Cape Breton clan may have lived in the New World since 1779, when Calum Ruadh ("the red Calum") and his wife, 12 children, and dog landed. Scotland, however, remains their true home. So profound is their connection to their lost land that on brief visits they find themselves welcomed by strangers. When one descendent tells a Scotswoman that she's from Canada, she is offered a gentle rejoinder: "That may be.... But you are really from here. You have just been away for a while." In some ways this is unsurprising, since the MacDonalds either have deep black hair or their ancestor's coloring. And those with the latter have "eyes that were so dark as to be beyond brown and almost in the region of glowing black. Such individuals would manifest themselves as strikingly unfamiliar to some, and as eerily familiar to others." Another sport of nature? Many are fraternal twins, including Alistair MacLeod's narrator, Alexander, and his sister.But No Great Mischief is far more than the straightforward saga of one family over the generations. Instead the author has created a painfully beautiful myth in which the long-ago is in many ways more present than modern existence. Even in the last decades of the 20th century, the MacDonalds fall into Gaelic--its inflections, rhythms, and song--with deep nostalgia. This is a family that is used to composing itself in the face of disaster. They often assure one another, "My hope is constant in thee," and in the light of their many losses, the clan must cling to its motto. No Great Mischief begins with Alexander's visit to Toronto, where his eldest brother now subsists on a diet of drink and memories. The narrator, a successful orthodontist, doesn't have much to do with the former but is unable (or unwilling) to escape the latter. As the novel proceeds, Alexander fills in his family history, including such key episodes as his great-great-grandfather's self-exile from Scotland. Though Calum Ruadh had intended to leave his dog behind, it broke away and tried to catch up with him. MacLeod piercingly captures the animal's struggle as her master first tries to make her head for shore and then--realizing she won't desert him--spurs her on. Throughout No Great Mischief various people recall this incident, an emblem of intensity, hope, and dependence. A descendant of the bitch is also on hand when Alexander's parents and one of his brothers disappear under the ice on a cold spring night. She persists in searching for her people and tries to protect their lighthouse from the new keeper, receiving in return "four bullets into her loyal waiting heart." When Alexander's grandfather hears of her death, he uses a phrase that becomes one of the book's litanies, "It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard." This is a MacDonald characteristic as well. A good deal of No Great Mischief's strength stems from scenes of longing and despair--for those who die for a lost cause, whether in 1692 when one leader is killed ("the redness of his hair dyed forever brighter by the crimson of his blood") or in an Ontario uranium mine where one brother is decapitated. MacLeod evokes his clan, and the elemental beauty of their landscape, in quiet, precise language that gains power with each repetition. (A sentence such as "All of us are better when we're loved" comes to acquire a near proverbial ring.) If he occasionally tips his hand too much, pressing home his point that present-day prosperity isn't all it's cracked up to be, no matter. I doubt that this inspired and elegiac novel will ever leave those who are lucky enough to read it--proving after all the persistence of the clann Chalum Ruaidh. --Kerry FriedFrom Publishers WeeklyMacLeod, a Canadian of Scottish lineage, has earned a sterling reputation north of the border based on two collections of stories (Barometer Rising; As Birds Bring Forth the Sun), and with his first novel he will only add to that acclaim. Already a bestseller in Canada, No Great Mischief (the title comes from General Wolfe's callous reaction to the death of Highlanders enlisted in Britain's efforts to wrestle Canada from France--"No great mischief if they fall") tells the sprawling story of one Scottish clan, the MacDonalds, who come to Cape Breton from Scotland in the 18th century and struggle valiantly to maintain their pride and identity up through the end of the millennium. The narrative is in the hands of a rather staid Ontario orthodontist, Alexander MacDonald, who comes to Toronto to aid his alcoholic older brother, Calum, who is down on his luck in a shabby rooming house and in need of company and a supply of liquor. The two will eventually drive to their beloved Cape Breton where the family patriarch is buried at the edge of a cliff, and along the way the family saga is relived, retold, recast. Alexander, it turns out, was orphaned at age three, along with his twin sister, when both parents fell through the ice when returning to the lighthouse where Alex's father was the keeper. His three much older brothers were already on their own, fishing off the Breton coast, tangling with French-Canadians in mineral mines, drinking hard in bunkhouses, while the twins are raised in relative comfort by doting grandparents. Calum, who seems to carry the legacy of the original Calum MacDonald (who lost his wife on the voyage from Scotland in 1779, leaving him with six children, to which he would add six more), is the dark light, like a bottle of whiskey, through which MacLeod's account is refracted. What emanates is a loving retrieval of a people's native strategy of survival through history and across a changing landscape. Though at times the narrative is confusing, it is cannily so: there are three Alexander MacDonalds to keep track of; there are familial ties that seem filial, then avuncular and then estranged. But the overall effect is authenticity, and the lack of irony is as bracing as the cold spray of the North Atlantic. (May) Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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To Every Thing There Is a Season

To Every Thing There Is a Season

Alistair Macleod

Fiction

The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas. On Christmas Eve he arrives, to the delight of his young siblings, and shoes the horse before taking them by sleigh through the woods to the nearby church. The adults, including the narrator for the first time, sit up late to play the gift-wrapping role of Santa Claus.The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow. Not a word is out of place. Matching and enhancingthe text are black and white illustrations by Peter Rankin, making this book a perfect little gift.For readers from nine to ninety-nine, our classic Christmas story by one of our greatest writers.About the AuthorAlistair MacLeod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and raised among an extended family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. 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 many awards, including the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Alistair MacLeod and his wife, Anita, have six children. They live in Windsor, Ontario.Peter Rankin was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He specializes in illustrating the traditional way of life there. A fisherman as well as an artist, in 2004 he illustrated Making Room, a children’s book by Joanne Taylor that was published by Tundra Books, for which he won the 2004 Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He lives in Mabou Coal Mines with his wife and their five children. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.I am speaking here of a time when I was eleven and lived with my family on our small farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. My family had been there for a long, long time and so it seemed had I. And much of that time seems like the proverbial yesterday. Yet when I speak on this Christmas 1977, I am not sure how much I speak with the voice of that time or how much in the voice of what I have since become. And I am not sure how many liberties I may be taking with the boy I think I was. For Christmas is a time of both past and present and often the two are imperfectly blended. As we step into its nowness we often look behind.We have been waiting now, it seems, forever. Actually, it has been most intense since Hallowe’en when the first snow fell upon us as we moved like muffled mummers upon darkened country roads. The large flakes were soft and new then and almost generous, and the earth to which they fell was still warm and as yet unfrozen. They fell in silence into the puddles and into the sea where they disappeared at the moment of contact. They disappeared, too, upon touching the heated redness of our necks and hands or the faces of those who did not wear masks. We carried our pillowcases from house to house, knocking on doors to become silhouettes in the light thrown out from kitchens (white pillowcases held out by whitened forms). The snow fell between us and the doors and was transformed in shimmering golden beams. When we turned to leave, it fell upon our footprints, and as the night wore on obliterated them and all the records of our movements. In the morning everything was soft and still and November had come upon us.My brother Kenneth, who is two and a half, is unsure of his last Christmas. It is Hallowe’en that looms largest in his memory as an exceptional time of being up late in magic darkness and falling snow. “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas?” he asks. “I think I’ll be a snowman.” All of us laugh at that and tell him Santa Claus will find him if he is good and that he need not dress up at all. We go about our appointed tasks waiting for it to happen.I am troubled myself about the nature of Santa Claus and I am trying to hang on to him in any way that I can. It is true that at my age I no longer really believe in him, yet I have hoped in all his possibilities as fiercely as I can; much in the same way, I think, that the drowning man waves desperately to the lights of the passing ship on the high sea’s darkness. For without him, as without the man’s ship, it seems our fragile lives would be so much more desperate.
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Island

Island

Alistair Macleod

Fiction

"Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea." So begins "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," a 1985 entry from Island. The story continues, "And the man had a dog of which he was very fond." And there you have the basic elements of an Alistair MacLeod story: dog, family, and sea. The author--whose 2000 novel No Great Mischief won him a measure of long-overdue acclaim--shuffles these elements into a surprisingly infinite variety of configurations, always with the same precise, confident, quiet language. His big theme is the abandonment of the rural. Though his characters live in the fishing communities of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the seaside isn't a place where they dwell contentedly. In half the stories, young men and boys feel a pull toward academe and the center of the country. In the other half, academically successful middle-aged men return to the wild eastern coast of Canada to try to reclaim the life they left behind. Both dilemmas are impossible to resolve--no one can be both a city mouse and a country mouse--and MacLeod wisely doesn't offer easy solutions. What makes the writing sing, though, is the specificity of his descriptions of rural life. He tells you exactly how things work: "The sheep move in and out of their lean-to shelter, restlessly stamping their feet or huddling together in tightly packed groups. A conspiracy of wool against the cold." The people here are ultimately defined by the physical world, and MacLeod has a farmer's visceral feel for geography. As he writes in "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood": "Even farther out, somewhere beyond Cape Spear lies Dublin and the Irish coast; far away but still the nearest land, and closer now than is Toronto or Detroit, to say nothing of North America's more western cities; seeming almost hazily visible now in imagination's mist." This is regional fiction in the best sense: it belongs to one perfectly evoked place. --Claire Dederer
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Remembrance

Remembrance

Alistair Macleod

Fiction

From the internationally celebrated author of No Great Mischief comes a moving short story of three generations of men from a single family whose lives are forever altered by the long shadow of war. In the early morning hours of November 11, David MacDonald, a veteran of the Second World War, stands outside his Cape Breton home, preparing to attend what will likely be his last Remembrance Day parade. As he waits for the arrival of his son and grandson, he remembers his decision to go to war in desperation to support his young family. He remembers the horrors of life at the frontlines in Ortona, Italy, and then what happened in Holland when the Canadians arrived as liberators. He remembers how the war devastated his own family, but gave him other reasons to live. As the story unfolds, other generations enter the scene. What emerges is an elegant, life-affirming meditation on the bond between fathers and sons, "how the present always comes out of the past,"...
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The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

Alistair Macleod

Fiction

The stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are remarkably simple – a family is drawn together by shared and separate losses, a child’s reality conflicts with his parents’ memories, a young man struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father.Yet each piece of writing in this critically acclaimed collection is infused with a powerful life of its own, a precision of language and a scrupulous fidelity to the reality of time and place, of sea and Maritime farm.Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relationships, the seven stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood map the close bonds and impassable chasms that lie between man and woman, parent and child.
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As Birds Bring Forth the Sun

As Birds Bring Forth the Sun

Alistair Macleod

Fiction

The superbly crafted stories collected in Alistair MacLeod's As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories depict men and women acting out their “own peculiar mortality” against the haunting landscape of Cape Breton Island. In a voice at once elegiac and life-affirming, MacLeod describes a vital present inhabited by the unquiet spirits of a Highland past, invoking memory and myth to celebrate the continuity of the generations even in the midst of unremitting change.His second collection, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories confirms MacLeod's international reputation as a storyteller of rare talent and inspiration.
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