No Great Mischief
by Alistair MacLeod
Alistair MacLeod musters all of the skill and grace that have won him
an international following to give us No Great Mischief, the story of
a fiercely loyal family and the tradition that drives it.
Generations after their forebears
went into exile, the MacDonalds still face seemingly unmitigated hardships
and cruelties of life. Alexander, orphaned as a child by a horrific tragedy,
has nevertheless gained some success in the world. Even his older brother,
Calum, a nearly destitute alcoholic living on Toronto's skid row, has
been scarred by another tragedy. But, like all his clansman, Alexander
is sustained by a family history that seems to run through his veins.
And through these lovingly recounted stories-wildly comic or heartbreakingly
tragic-we discover the hope against hope upon which every family must
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1. Why might the author have
chosen the narrator Alexander to be an orthodontist by profession? Is
his choice of profession connected in some way to Calum's infected tooth
episode during their boyhood [p. 79]? What is Alexander's attitude towards
his own profession? Is he proud or ashamed? He writes that he hopes
to make his patients more beautiful than they were before [p. 62] or,
as his grandma might say, he is "in the business of 'improving on God'
" [p. 103]. How does Alexander's profession reflect a kind of attempt
to find an explanation for his past or to escape from it?
2. When Alexander first arrives
at Calum's apartment, Calum accuses him of being there because of their
grandma's dictum: "Always look after your own blood" [p. 14]. Does Alexander
in fact visit Calum out of obligation? Guilt? What is his relationship
with his older brother? Is either one the man who has "everything or
nothing" [p. 71]? How would you describe the author's treatment of the
other two surviving brothers, and how does it affect the reader's understanding
of Alexander's relationship with his family?
3. Alexander thinks it is not
important which liquor he buys for his dying alcoholic brother, rather
he reflects, "What is important is that I will return" [p. 170]. Is
Alexander's trip to his brother's apartment that afternoon more than
just a physical experience? Is it in any way a spiritual homecoming?
4. From an early age, when
femininity distinguishes her from the older brothers [p. 74], Alexander's
sister's role in the narrative is unique. Why does Alexander choose
to tell us about his family and his Scottish heritage through his twin
sister's personal recollections of their family life and her revealing
trip back to Scotland? How would you characterize his relationship with
his sister? What is the significance of the fact that the author refers
to Alexander's sister by her given name, Catherine, only once [p. 109],
and that occurrence appears not directly from Alexander, but in a letter
from their uncle and aunt?
5. In the beginning, the narrator
explains, "This is a story of lives which turned out differently than
was intended" [p. 57]. Is it really a matter of lives turning out differently
than intended, or are the MacDonald children's lives a result of the
choices they have made? Calum looks at his parents' death this way:
"If I had been with them I might have saved them" [p. 209]. But Alexander
has a different perspective: "If you had been with them you would have
gone down too" [p. 209]. Could Calum's life have turned out differently
if he had felt lucky, instead of guilty? Are Alexander's and Calum's
lives impacted more by their own personal past or by their entire family's
6. Does the saying on the Toronto
woman's T-shirt-- "Living in the past is not living up to our potential"
[p. 60]--mirror the message of the novel? How does the past hold back
the MacDonald family?
7. At the end of the novel,
Grandma describes Grandpa and their "other grandfather" as a balance
to each other [p. 264]. How would you describe the relationship between
the grandfathers? Is it like any of the other relationships among family
members in the clan? How are the grandfathers' different feelings about
their past and their views of history indicative of their different
8. As related in the novel,
General Wolfe describes the members of the MacDonald clan who fought
under his command at Quebec by writing in a letter, "They are hardy,
intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they
fall."[p. 237]. According to historians, Wolfe was referring to the
two motives for recruiting the Highlanders to the British Army for King
George in the Seven Years' War: their stamina as well as the possibility
of removing them as a threat to the monarchy. Alexander's grandfather
characterized Wolfe's description as a "cynical comment" [p. 109], and
his sister likens the MacDonald clan to a "great sports team which may
have lost faith in its management or its coach, but are out there anyway
in the bloodied mud and the smoke, giving their hearts and their sinew
not for 'management' but for the shared history of one another" [pp.
237-8]. Is Wolfe's description of the MacDonalds a source of pride or
a burden to the family? What is the significance of the author's allusion
to Wolfe's quote for the title of the novel?
9. Why do the family members
speak Gaelic to each other more and more as they get older?
10. What role does Alexander
play in the Fern Picard incident? How is he both an active participant
and an outside observer? In what other places in the novel is he both
participant and observer?
11. Does Alexander judge Calum's
behavior? Fern Picard's? Alexander MacDonald's from San Francisco? The
narrator comments that sending the stolen money back to Fern Picard
is "the fitting thing to do" [p. 261]. Is that an appropriate choice
of words under the circumstances? Is there a presence of morality in
the novel? Does Alexander ever give the reader an idea of what he thinks
is right and wrong?
12. How would you describe the
concept of time in the novel? How do the repeated incidents in which
clann Chalum Ruaidh members recognize each other affect the concept
of time? Is time linear, or, as in the darkness of the mines, does time
seem "to compress and expand almost simultaneously" [p. 199]?
13. When Alexander's brother
returns to Scotland, in a matter of minutes a fellow clan member spots
him and invites him to be his business partner, saying, "If only the
ships had come from France" [p. 263]. The family members greet each
other with Robert the Bruce's quote from 1314, "My hope is constant
in thee, Clan Donald" [pp. 88, 11, 202]. Are these incidents an example
of how the family continues to stick together despite their hardships
and differences? Does it sometimes seem as if the family's reliving
of their defeat borders on an absurd, almost existentialist condition?
14. What is the significance
of the author's descriptions of the migrant workers in Ontario and of
the Zulu and Masai tribes in Africa? Are all of these races displaced
peoples--like clann Chalum Ruaidh? How are they different? Is
the description of Alexander's wife's brief family history similar or
different from these other people's [p. 274]? What is the significance
of the point in the narrative at which the author chooses to place these
15. What is the author's attitude
towards the miners? How are the miners' lives similar to those of the
16. Echoing like refrains throughout
the novel are the mottoes "We are all better when we're loved" and "Stick
with your blood." How are these two concepts manifest in Alexander's
family? What relationships in the tale are governed by the former credo
and which ones by the latter?
17. What is the point of Alexander
MacDonald having stolen the wallet that precipitated Calum's attack
on Fern, resulting in his ultimate conviction for second-degree murder?
Do the MacDonalds simultaneously survive and perish because they "stick
with their blood"?
18. The author frequently uses
compound metaphors, such as the many metaphors for change on page 72.
At what other points in the narrative does the author use this style
of compounding metaphors? How does his use of both compound and recurrent
metaphors as well as other stylistic devices, such as repetition, reinforce
the themes of the novel? How does the author use Gaelic language and
music to set the style and tone of the novel? In what ways does the
novel itself mimic a Gaelic song?
19. Why do the men of the clann
Chalum Ruaidh, in particular Calum, have such strong relationships
with animals? What does it say about their characters? How do their
relationships with animals compare to their relationships with other
men? The author writes of the clann Chalum Ruaidh dogs, "It was
in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard" [p. 57]. Does this
describe the dogs or their masters?
20. Alexander explains, "The
'lamp of the poor' is hardly visible in urban southwestern Ontario,
although there are many poor who move disjointedly beneath it. And the
stars are seldom clearly seen above the pollution of prosperity" [p.
192]. What is the narrator's attitude towards affluence--his own and
that of others?
21. The author writes, "In the
waters near Glencoe perhaps the mythical 'king of the herring' still
swims. If he exists, perhaps he is as complicated as many other leaders.
He is regarded as a friend to some, but those who follow him may do
so at their peril. In any case there are no MacDonalds who wait for
him and his bounty, and perhaps without their beliefs he is just another
fish, who should be careful where he swims" [p. 274]. How does this
view of the clan simultaneously capture Grandpa's and Grandfather's
different views of their common history? What is more crippling to Alexander's
family: the lack of beliefs or the fear of not having any?
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"Remarkable...[MacLeod’s] writing [is] graceful and elegiac."
Los Angeles Times
"A gorgeously worded...novel by an acknowledged master of the short story."
San Francisco Chronicle