February: No Great Mischief

This monthly feature by Patricia Bochi invites readers to (re)discover a work that’s so rich and delightful it calls for slow reading to appreciate it fully.

No Great Mischief by short story writer and novelist Alistair MacLeod (July 20, 1936 -) — winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2001) — is our selection for February.

Considered by many to be one of the finest Canadian writers, MacLeod’s work is widely anthologized. His other major works include two short story collections: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986).

The recurring theme in MacLeod’s work is the Gaelic heritage and its impact on the descendants of the Highland Scots who settled Nova Scotia more than 200 years ago. His work tells the struggles of the fishermen and miners’ experience against the harsh natural environment and the occupational dangers, the lure of the modern mainland, and their return to their Gaelic roots.

MacLeod’s characteristically well-written prose and attention to the mot juste convey the cultural decline of Nova Scotia with simple authenticity and “honest emotion …. sensually rendered as the blood, salt, and waterlogged wood of Cape Breton,” as Frederick Busch notes.


“No Great Mischief,
a startlingly poetic and perfectly structured story told by Alexander MacDonald, a successful orthodontist who is reflecting on his life and the history of his family. Much of the action in No Great Mischief takes place in the late middle portion of the 20th century though, in many ways, the story truly begins far ahead of that. Alexander is the ancestor of a heroic highlander who left Scotland with his family in 1779. The descendants of Calum MacDonald — Calum Ruadh in Gaelic — have formed a tightly knit community on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island…. The clann Chalum Ruaidh plays a large part in No Great Mischief. It gives a very tangible focus to the concepts of family and history as it lives through all of us: even if we don’t speak Gaelic…. If there must be a point, it’s MacLeod’s lovely prose and the elegance with which he inches us along towards a bittersweet conclusion. No Great Mischief is a startlingly lovely book. A wonderful — if overdue — debut.” — Sienna Powers, February 1999

“This extraordinary novel, telling the story of the substantial branch of the MacDonald clan that settled on Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia, offers every satisfaction except an ending as quietly mighty as what has gone before. At the end of the text, Alistair MacLeod acknowledges the ‘spiritual assistance’ that came his way during its completion, but from a reader’s point of view the notes of reconciliation and transcendence in the closing pages license the sentimentality that has been suppressed so long and so well.” — Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer, July 22, 2000

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