Saturday, May 30, 2009

'No Great Mischief'

by Alistair Macleod
Fiction, 1999
Vintage UK, trade pb, 262 p.
Winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2001
In 1779, driven out of his home, Calum MacDonald sets sail from the Scottish Highlands with his extensive family. After a long, terrible journey he settles his family in ‘the land of trees’ until they become a separate Nova Scotian clan: red-haired and black-eyed, with its own identity, its own history.

It is the 1980s by the time our narrator, Alexander MacDonald, tells the story of his family, a thrilling and passionate story that intersects with history: with Culloden, where the clans died, and with the 1759 battle at Quebec that was won when General Wolfe sent in the fierce Highlanders because it was ‘no great mischief if they fall’.
I’m not sure exactly how long I’ve had No Great Mischief but I know it had been sitting on my shelves unread for quite some time, so I’m glad that I finally got around to reading it.

It essentially tells the story of the MacDonald family and is narrated by the youngest brother of the current generation. It moves around from the present to the past and even as far back as when their ancestors left Scotland and settled on Cape Breton. So the story of one family becomes a tale of the whole clan of cousins and uncles and everyone else somehow connected to the clann Chalum Ruaidh.

For me, the most memorable aspect of the story was the strong sense of family and belonging, and sticking together regardless of what life throws at you. Even members of the clan who had never met would be instantly welcomed with arms wide and cared for. In our modern world where people are often so disconnected and alone, where you might never meet your next-door neighbour, it was really wonderful to read about this deep bond that reached beyond borders, and was such a tangible part of the story. As well as the strong connection they had to the land making Cape Breton as much a character in the story as the rest of them.

I don’t know anything about Scottish history and very little about Canadian history either if I’m being honest, so when they referred to old battles won or lost, I didn’t have much background knowledge to go on, but it didn’t really matter as it’s ultimately a character-driven story. As such, the story progressed at a relatively slow pace sometimes, but I enjoyed being taken along the narrator’s stroll down memory lane.
‘All of us are better when we’re loved.’

Interview with the author
No Great Mischief on the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award website.

First sentence: As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario.

Buy this book at: Amazon | | | The Book Depository

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#33 for 2009, Book Awards II Challenge, 2nd Canadian Book Challenge)

Also reviewed at:
an adventure in reading
If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I love books about Scotland and their clans. Sounds like an interesting read and I'm glad you finally got it done. I need to take tips from you and start reading from my bookshelves, instead of bringing more books into the house!!

  2. The fact that this is the story of a Scottish clan alone makes me want to read it. Obsessed with Scotland? Me?! :P

  3. I have had this book on my TBR pile forever, too! One of these days I am going to have to read it...

  4. Staci - I could stop buying for a few years and still not run out of stuff to read. That's not very likely to happen though! The reading challenges do help me to get some of the older books on my shelves read.

    Nymeth - LOL. It's not a bad thing to be obsessed with Scotland though, is it? :P

    Kailana - I'm glad I finally read it! I have plenty of books that I could say the same thing about though.

  5. This one has been on my TBR for a VERY long time too. Maybe for the Canadian Book Challenge III.

  6. Teddy Rose - I'd even had it on a couple of challenge lists over the last 2 years, so it felt good to finally cross it off. :)


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