Archive for the ‘Alistair MacLeod’ Category

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1999. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-5567-6. 283 pages.

One of a long tradition of Canadian Family Saga Novels, set, as many of them are, in the ruggeder bits of Eastern Canada. In this case Cape Breton, with discursions into northern Ontario uranium mining country and the meaner streets of Toronto.

The particular (fictional) branch of the MacDonald family which this novel concerns came to Cape Breton from Scotland in 1779, and the tale of their journey is now legend with their descendents. There’s a lot of referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rebellion of 1745 – the MacDonalds were “for” – and Culloden is discussed in the 1950s and 60s as if it happened just last week.

The title of the novel comes from a quote attributed to General Wolfe before the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, that the Highlanders (including those of the MacDonald clan) will be useful in the assault on the French because “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Yes, indeed. And fall MacLeod’s MacDonalds do, in various tragic ways.

Here’s the plot summary from the flyleaf of my 1999 edition:

That was a bit of a cheat, me using the scan versus condensing things myself. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to rehash things, and here’s the reason.

Deep breath.

This is it: No Great Mischief is, for me, something of a dud.

That said, let me back up and sugarcoat that statement by agreeing with its many fans that parts of it are excellent. The opening chapters are brilliant, as are large sections throughout. It’s deeply and lovingly evocative of a very unique place. Life affirming even though brim full of tragic, too-soon deaths. Gloriously funny here and there. And earnest and sincere and sincere and earnest and so blinking repetitive that I kept thinking I’d somehow gone back a chapter or two without noticing. Oops, sugar-coating cracked just there, didn’t it?

I guess my biggest problem with this novel is that the thing just doesn’t convince; the family legends have been told too often; they are approaching facile in how they trip off the tongue of each subsequent teller. It’s the storyteller Alistair MacLeod presenting the tale of the storyteller Alexander MacDonald who is in turn repeating the stories of every generation before him. The material is over-handled. Oh, and every few pages everyone breaks into song. Crooning away in Gaelic, in perfect harmony. How nice, but it lost its effect after the tenth time or so.

The best bits are the contemporary passages, and even those are repeated and repeated, dulling the impact of the perfectly captured moment. I wanted to shout “Stop! Right there! You have me in the palm of your hand! Leave it there!” Nope, wham wham wham, MacLeod keeps driving his point home.

And the ending was ridiculously contrived. A book toss was a near, near thing.

So there we have it.

I wanted to love this novel so much. I came to it open to loving it, eager to embrace it. And then, despite its fine qualities, it ended up repelling me by the time I made it to the end.

Your experience may differ. As might mine on a second reading, if that ever happens.

The rating for right now, then.

Despite my cruel words, I will give No Great Mischief its due. Let’s say 8/10, because it was a good novel much of the time, and came so close to winning me over.  I am truly sad that it was ultimately disappointing, because I had been looking forward to it as a treat-to-myself on the strength of its stellar “Great Can-Lit” reputation, and I thought it would be an easy 10.

 

 

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the lost salt gift of blood 2 alistair macleodThe Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1976. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1989. Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9969-X. 160 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for the writing, no debate there. For reading “pleasure”, which of course is an extremely individual definition, I’m struggling with a rating. I’ll willingly put this on the keeper shelf, but I strongly suspect I may never read it again. The well-turned phrases are lovely in and of themselves, but the subject matter is so very bleak. This book makes me so glad I’m not in high school any more. What a godsend to keen Can-Lit teachers!

I started off reading this book with no foreknowledge of what the tone would be, though I suspected less than frivolous, what with the earnest back cover blurb:

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.

These seven stories are intense and perfectly crafted; I can easily believe that Alistair MacLeod spent a year writing each one; they feel perfected, pared down, edited for maximum effect to the nth degree. Marvelous writing.

But I came away from my reading – which I spaced out over a week or so because this isn’t the sort of stuff one can take in all at one sitting – feeling so terribly sad, which may in itself be the strongest tribute I can give to the power of MacLeod’s writing.

*****

These are all stories of “place”, very specifically regional, focussed on Cape Breton. The sea and the land are characters as much as any of the sentient creatures that occupy their worlds.

  • In the Fall ~ The teenage narrator, the oldest of six children, remembers the autumn his father was forced to sell his beloved old horse to the knacker. Heart-wrenching.  I have a very low tolerance for betrayal of old animals scenarios – hence my real-life situation of supporting a number of geriatric creatures in various stages of decline – so I almost bailed on the book at this point, but doggedly kept on. Though it never got much more cheerful…people started dropping in the following episodes. But, oh! – the evocative writing!

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contained no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

  • The Vastness of the Dark ~ A boy leaves home on his eighteenth birthday, with little plan but that he must get away from his here and now, and travel forward into something different.

(After the Cumberland No. 2 coal mine explosion)… I remember again… the return of my father and the haunted greyness of his face and after the younger children were in bed the quiet and hushed conversations of seeping gas and lack of oxygen and the wild and belching smoke and flames of the subterranean fires nourished there by the everlasting seams of the dark and diamond coal. And also of the finding of the remains of men flattened and crushed if they died beneath the downrushing roofs of rock or if they had been blown apart by the explosion itself, transformed into forever lost and irredeemable pieces of themselves; hands and feet and blown-away faces and reproductive organs and severed ropes of intestines festooning the twisted pipes and spikes like grotesque Christmas-tree loops and chunks of hair-clinging flesh. Men transformed into grisly jig-saw puzzles that could never more be solved.

  • The Lost Salt Gift of Blood ~ A successful Toronto businessman returns to the Newfoundland community he has long left behind, to take a look at his illegitimate son who has recently been orphaned by the death of his mother and stepfather. Yearnings of fatherhood stir within him; should he tell the boy who he is?
  • The Return ~ A ten-year-old boy makes the trip from Montreal to visit his Cape Breton grandparents for the first time.
  • The Golden Gift of Grey ~ A teenage boy lives a secret life, visiting the pool hall after classes and forming a friendship with the man who was the cause of his father coming to Cape Breton from Kentucky ten years ago.
  • The Boat ~ An adult son remembers his father, and their life together on their fishing boat.
  • The Road to Rankin’s Point ~ This was the most personally moving and my favourite of all these seven stories. A terminally ill grandson returns to his elderly grandmother’s farm, seeking peace and a place to die.

I could easily have included excerpts from each of these stories – the most difficult task would have been deciding what to highlight among so many memorable passages –  but I will instead leave you to discover them for yourself, if you so choose.

A good review from another blogger is here: City Scrivener – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

A very readable scholarly examination of the stories is here: SCL – Studies in Canadian Literature – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

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