Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Alistair MacLoed Is Dead: Far from No Great Mischief

The news this weekend was that Alistair MacLeod, short story writer and novelist, is dead at 77.    As it happened, his only novel No Great Mischief was the focus of the book discussion group I led at the Atwater Library last Wednesday which means that MacLeod and his interesting view of the world is very fresh in my mind.

The book, which MacLeod worked on for 13 years before finally agreeing to have it typed up and prepared for publication by MacLelland  and Stewart in 1999, is told by a Cape Breton man (one of three Alexander MacDonalds in the novel, now living a nice upper middle class life in Windsor, ON, as he tries ot help his alcoholic older brother.  The pace is slow, as it often is when stories are told aloud. There is repetition of key phrases and repetition of key events, just as there is in stories told aloud.  The voice is easy, as if the man narrating the events was sure from the beginning how it would end.

Along the way we are told a lot about the Highland Scots who settled in Cape Breton in the late 18th century, and how their progeny continue today to eke out an existence on the rough landscape.  It is a moving story, and one which I found absorbing.

As we spoke about the book last week, I wondered just how much of my appreciation of the book is colored by the fact that my mother was a McDonald, from the Protestant part of that clan. Certainly the people who seemed most taken by the book had a link with Scotland one way or another.  But MacLeod goes to great lengths to make the connection between the clannishness of the Highland Scots and the ties that bind peole in other communities: French Canadians, Zulus, the Masai, Mexican Mennonites.

Indeed, the link between the Scots and the French in North America is one of the major themes in the book, and led to an almost surreal book launch when the French translation came out a couple of years after English original. The event was sponsored by the Quebec nationalist Société St-Jean Baptiste at its headquarters in an elegant old house once owned by the Patriot Ludger Duvernay.  I suppose I was invited because I'd written a fictionalized biography of another of the Patriots (and here we're talking about the Rebellions in both Lower and Upper Canada in 1837-38) Robert Nelson.   When guests arrived we were greeted by two men in kilts playing bagpipes outside.  Inside we were greated to Scottish dancing, a short talk by MacLeod (in English, since he spoke no French), a reading of the French translation and the presentation of a scholarly work about the many French Quebeckers who have Scottish ancestors.

The leaders of the SJB society at the time were following very carefully the secession movement in Scotland, and had read MacLeod's book in English on their way to attend the first session of the Scottish assembly.  Obviously they found  a great many resonances with the Quebec situation.  As for me, I was delighted by the connections they made, as well as the pipers.

Will pipers play Amazing Grace or Over the Sea to Skye at MacLeod's funeral which will be held this Saturday at St. Margaret of Scotland Church at Broad Cove, Cape Breton?  Possibly. A more interesting question is: how religious will the service be?  One of the things that is strangely missing from No Great Mischief  is organized religion.  MacLeod avoids any reference to the Catholic-Protestant cleavage in Scottish culture in his books, because, I'd like to think, that conflict is irrelevant when considering the relations of people to nature and to the hard scrabble life so many live.

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