‘Better when we’re loved’

Both parents and a brother are lost when the Atlantic ice cracks and three lives slip beneath its shifting surface. Two sets of orphans are created out of the children left behind. Toddlers Alexander MacDonald and his twin sister are taken in by grandparents, while three older brothers – teenagers – live on their own. They are all part of a tight-knit Cape Breton clan, descendants of Calum Ruadh, a Scot who came to Canada in 1779. Their great-great-great-grandfather appears regularly in conversation like he’s a next door neighbour. When the brothers notch and saw through the trunk of a perfect, 30-foot spruce, it is severed but remains upright. Its upper branches are so tightly twined with the surrounding trees that it cannot fall. This is an apt image for the power of family and family history in Alistair MacLeod’s majestic novel No Great Mischief.

In their early twenties the older brothers leave Cape Breton to become specialized development miners. Alexander joins them in northern Ontario after an accident claims a Calum Ruadh member. The various competitive construction crews stick together in ethnic groups as they risk their lives to make a living drilling for black uranium ore. The Calum Ruadh miners find themselves speaking Gaelic more and more. At night dreaming men shout phrases in their languages of origin. Rivalry between the groups escalates. Instead of reaching up to the heavens like those around the Tower of Babel, these men blast down into the earth in search of black gold.

No Great Mischief, MacLeod’s only novel, showcases his gift for setting. Restless as their ancestor, MacDonalds scatter across Canada without severing their East Coast roots. They return constantly, in conversation and memory if not in the flesh. Alexander exchanges the jackleg drill for a dentist drill as he settles in southern Ontario. His twin sister moves to Calgary, a successful film actress. Their oldest brother Calum lives on skid row in Toronto and checks the weather in Cape Breton daily. 

After an austere upbringing, affluence now sits uneasily on the shoulders of the twins. What has been lost, and what gained, in the march toward prosperity from harder times? MacLeod is not so foolish as to romanticize either extreme, yet tensions remain. When his grandmother comes to visit Alexander’s “lovely big house,” she cannot fathom why they need a cleaning lady.

No Great Mischief accentuates both the beauty and the brevity of life. Driving into the heart of Toronto, Alexander notices people jostling each other in the streets and speaking in various dialects; items in the windows that “claim to be imported”; brazen but weary pigeons that waddle like pompous businessmen along the sidewalk. And then this line, which stands out for me as the central theme: “Here beyond the expensive restaurants and the region of towers, the battle between restoring and destroying goes on.” He’s describing a construction site but it applies to landscapes and relationships no less. How will you spend the time you’ve been given? Every action takes a side in this ongoing battle.

At its heart, this novel is an elegy – for their parents, for the bloody history of their clan, for a loss of community and for the possibilities of what might have been, which continue to haunt both brothers. 

“If you had been with them,” Alexander says to Calum of their parents’ deaths, “you would have gone down too.” “I look at it differently,” Calum replies. “If I had been with them I might have saved them.”

Both want to understand why things happen the way they do and, without recognizing the hand of God at work, excavate family honour and history for the answers. It’s a futile search, but not a hopeless one. Much of the great love God has for us, his children, is demonstrated in the self-sacrificial love of the Calum Ruadh clan. Grandparents take in toddlers, Alexander forgoes graduate work for the mines, and relatives save Calum from arrest. Along with her love, their grandmother hands down this refrain, which rings true in the past and in the present: “All of us are better when we’re loved.” 

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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