Tales of the Seannachie
- Alistair MacLeod (Author)
No Great Mischief. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dianne MacPhee
Irish writer Colm Toibin considers the discovery of Alistair MacLeod’s collection of short stories The Lost Salt Gift of Blood to be the high point of his work in editing Th Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950. For Toibin, the discover) was "a surprise, a shock to the system," anc he asks, "How could we have not known about the Canadian, Alistair MacLeod?" How indeed? MacLeod is a slow writer whose thirteen short stories are contained in two small volumes published ten years apart. No Great Mischief is his first novel and has been thirteen years in the making.
The story begins as the narrator, Alexander MacDonald, drives from his home in southern Ontario to Toronto for a weekly visit with his alcoholic older brother, Calum, who lives in a bleak downtown tenement inhabited by "people who do not own much of anything." We quickly learn that there is more to this relationship than brother caring for brother. For Alexander is the gille beag ruadh of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, the little red-haired boy of the clan of Red Malcolm (and this changes everything as MacLeod reveals himself as a modern-day seannachie—the Celtic chronicler, the guardian of memory). His precise, rhythmic, bardic prose leads us with the words "As I begin to tell this" into the past of the MacDonald clan which fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, was betrayed and murdered in the pass of Glencoe, was decimated in Charles Stuart’s destructive bid for power at Culloden, and whose descendants today are dispersed throughout the world.
The setting for this story is complex as we move through time and space while the narrator uses flashback and memory, myth and legend to relate family history. Past and present blend together in the enduring loyalty of the extended family of the clan and the demands of bloodlines, while MacLeod also explores what happens when cultures collide and the bonds of clan and family are broken.
Clann Chalum Ruaidh is named after Malcolm MacDonald, Red Malcolm, who left Moidart, Scotland in 1779 at the age of fifty-five accompanied by his sick wife, who died on the trip, and twelve other family members, along with the family dog who refused to be left behind. Calum Ruadh lived another fifty-five years in Cape Breton and lies buried on a point of land which is gradually being worn away by ocean storms that will eventually unite the old patriarch with the ocean that separates him from his Scottish home.
The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, and his twin sister are raised by their grandparents after the deaths of their parents and eleven-year-old brother who fall through thin ice while attempting to cross to the island where the parents are lighthouse keepers. They leave nothing behind them "but a lantern—perhaps tossed on to the ice by a sinking hand and miraculously landing upright and continuing to glow, or perhaps, set down after its arc, wildly but carefully by a hand which sought to reach another." The three older brothers are left to raise themselves in the old Calum Ruadh house, fishing and hunting and increasingly speaking only Gaelic, "the old language of the land," as they grow up without electricity, plumbing, or schooling, sleeping under horseblankets with loaded guns under their beds. They shoot deer from their windows, "straining to get the antlered head in line with the rifle’s sights by the the light of the ’lochran aigh nam bochd] the Gaelic phrase for the moon, the ’lamp of the poor.’"
The two Cape Breton grandfathers, both "of the Calum Ruadh" who play such an important part in the lives of the orphaned twins, are appealing characters and provide balance for the old stories and clan legends. The maternal grandfather is a neat, fastidious, and logical man who studies clan history and imagines the tired, hungry, wounded, and defeated clansmen trying to make their way home after the futile rebellion of the ’45. Alexander’s other grandfather is a joyful, earthy, whisky-loving man who sees the ancient MacDonalds "coming home across the wildness of Rannoch Moor in the splendour of the autumn sun... . Singing the choruses of their rousing songs, while the sun gleams off the shining of their weapons and the black and the redness of their hair."
Generations after the original Calum Ruadh leaves Scotland in search of land and economic stability for his family, his descendants migrate in search of work and money and become part of the Gaelic diaspora. The sister marries a petroleum engineer and lives in a modern home in Calgary; the older brothers wander the remote places of the world as specialized "drift and development miners." Although Alexander has graduated from university with a degree in dentistry, he does not hesitate to join his brothers as replacement for a namesake Alexander who is killed in a suspect mine accident. The members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh remain true to the family maxim: "Always look after your blood."
MacLeod’s handling of the complex themes of displacement and loyalty interwoven with treachery enriches the underlying sorrow of this story. When the sister visits Moidart on a journey to Scotland, she is instantly recognized by the clan members as one of their own and informed that "You really are from here. You have just been away for awhile." Stories drift through time and unite past and present as though they are one and the same. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France is mentioned; it was broken when the promised French ships and gold did not arrive to help French-raised Prince Charlie in his bid for the throne of Scotland. Ironically, young clansmen were often educated in France, becoming fluent in French and Gaelic. The words of the title, No Great Mischief, are those of General Wolfe about the Highlanders in his army at Quebec: "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall." But it was a French-speaking MacDonald who climbed the steep cliff path at Quebec and deceived Montcalm’s sentry by speaking French; likely the same MacDonald fought against Wolfe in the battle at Culloden. In the mining camp, members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh feud and brawl with a team of French Canadian miners. The two groups distrust one another, and yet in one moving scene, they are united by "the common fabric of the music." The cat alyst which brings the two groups together is yet another member of the Gaelic diaspora, James MacDonald, cousin agamfhein, a James Bay Crée who plays all the old Scottish tunes on his great-grandfather MacDonald’s fiddle.
The fierce clan loyalty creates an unexpected incident that shatters Calum’s life and changes the family irrevocably. Treachery and betrayal, sorrow and loss mark them. In the final chapter, Alexander takes his brother Calum home to die in Cape Breton. MacLeod makes the closing scene, in which the two Macdonald brothers drive at full speed through deep water on the washed-out Canso Causeway, a memorable image of the passage from this world to the next. No Great Mischief demonstrates the truth of MacLeod’s own assertion that "what makes things universal is that they touch a core, a storehouse of human experience and concerns that transcend regions and transcend time."
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MLA: MacPhee, Dianne. Tales of the Seannachie. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 165 - 167)
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