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A STUNNER OF A NOVEL FROM A NORTHERN NEIGHBOR

No Great Mischief
By Alistair MacLeod
Norton
283 pages, $23.95

There's more than any reader will have bargained for in 63-year-old Canadian Alistair MacLeod's first novel, "No Great Mischief." MacLeod's stunner is a novel of identity, family, belonging. It is about a Cape Breton family, the MacDonalds, the clann Chalum Ruaidh, so called in their native Scotland Gaelic, who endure hardship and tragedy in every generation from their ancestors' 18th century journey to Canada to the present.

MacLeod is inspirational in his ability to evoke earlier MacDonalds: those who fought in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314; the family enduring the 1745 rebellion in Scotland; their participation in the battles at the pass of Killiecrankie and the streets of Dunkeld. "Always look after your blood," Alexander's grandmother puts it. The MacDonald coat of arms reads: "My hope is constant in thee." "Beannachd leibh" -- "Take care," isn't a bad idea either.

MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan and raised among an extended family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Acclaimed internationally, his literary reputation rests on two collections of short stories before this novel, "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" (1976), and "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun" (1986). "No Great Mischief" is luminous in its plainsong description of nature on the Niagara peninsula.

Readers know "the splendid autumn sunshine" from driving in Ontario. MacLeod tells us that "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."

This brief quote is from the beginning of the novel. It is among the reflections of its main character, Alexander MacDonald, a middle-aged dentist living in Texas. Alexander has come back to Canada for a visit. He is journeying to see his older brother, Calum, an alcoholic who lives in a run-down area of Toronto. Alexander describes the drive into the city:

In the downtown area along Yonge Street and to the west, the anti-nuclear protestors are walking and carrying 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 ...

In his brother's room, Alexander sees Calum "... 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, woolen 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.'"

Alexander can't do much for him other than buy him drink and reminisce about the past, when they were children. But that's all Calum wants of his brother -- until the end of the novel. There are beautiful chapters describing the MacDonalds' childhood, parents, grandparents and siblings, as well as extended family. There's a chilling tale involving a murder that deals with Alexander working in the mines with his older, rough and tumble brothers before entering dental school.

Most of all the book is about family. Calum once told Alexander a story about the brothers trying to cut down a tree that, symbolized, stands for the MacDonald family.

They went into a tightly packed grove of spruce down by the shore. In the middle of the grove, they saw what they thought was the perfect tree. It was tall and straight and over thirty feet high. They notched it as they had been taught and then they sawed it with a bucksaw. When they had sawed it completely through, nothing happened. The tree's upper branches were so densely intertwined with those of the trees around it that it just remained standing. There was no way it could be removed or fall unless the whole grove was cut down. It remained like that for years. ... When the wind blew, the whole grove would move and sigh. Because all of the trees were evergreen they never lost their foliage, and the supporting trees extended their branches every year.

A note about the title. "No great mischief if they fail" was the cynical remark of English General Wolfe to his friend, Captain Rickson. It refers to the efforts of the Highlander Scots, the MacDonalds, who fought for Wolfe and the English against the French at Quebec, on the Plains of Abraham. At that battle, the MacDonald's motto was "First up the cliff."

MacLeod is especially good at limning the characteristics of Canadian selfhood: strength of character, pride, rectitude, independence, family connectedness -- looking after one's own blood. Drive to Hamilton, Toronto, Stratford, Guelph, or go to North Bay; one sees these virtues again and again. The ethos is there, notwithstanding ethnic variations.

"No Great Mischief" was more than I bargained for, but not for those who earlier knew of MacLeod's great narrative power.

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