About this guide
The following questions, discussion topics, and author biography are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Alistair MacLeod’s first novel, No Great Mischief. This beautiful, elegiac novel portrays a tightly-knit Scottish family plagued by loss and clinging loyally to the legacy of its heroic past.
In 1779, 55-year-old Calum Ruadh, or the red Calum MacDonald, left the Scottish Highlands with his second wife, their twelve children, and their faithful dog. He arrived on Cape Breton a widower and staked his claim to land in the New World for his clan—the clann Chalum Ruaidh. Today, centuries later, the immediately recognizable red- or black-haired and fair-skinned members of clann Chalum Ruaidh have spread all over North America, but they are joined to each other, and even to their relatives in Scotland, by their similar physical characteristics, their common Gaelic language and music, their shared history, and their family creed: “Take care of your blood.”
It is into this persistent clan with its inescapable history that our narrator, Calum Ruadh‘s great-great-greatgrandson Alexander MacDonald, is born. At the start of the novel, Alexander, an affluent orthodontist now living in southern Ontario, is traveling to a boarding house in Toronto on one of his frequent visits to his eldest brother Calum, an ailing alcoholic. We soon learn that when Alexander was just three years old, the boys lost their parents and another brother to a tragic accident on the ice-covered waters off the shore of Cape Breton. Alexander (always called ‘ille bhig ruaidh, which means “the little red-haired boy”) and his twin sister were raised by their paternal grandparents, while their other three teenaged brothers, including Calum, grew up on an isolated farm. Intertwining fifty years of MacDonald family history with the current events of this afternoon’s trip to Toronto, Alexander recalls the painful saga which brought him and Calum to their respective current existences.
Haunted by a yearning for their lost parents, Alexander, his twin sister, and Calum find strength and support in family ties, the resurrection of their Gaelic heritage, and their plaintive attempt to understand their history and that of their people as they struggle to make sense of their own lives.
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 legacy?
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 characters?
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 particular passages?
15. What is the author’s attitude towards the miners? How are the miners’ lives similar to those of the migrant workers?
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?
Suggestions for further reading
Fitzroy MacLean, Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Annie Proulx, The Shipping News; Alice McDermott, Charming Billy; Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans; William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying; Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses; Wayne Johnston, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams; Graham Swift, Last Orders; Philip Caputo, The Voyage; Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree.
About Alistair MacLeod
Read an author bio and view a complete list of titles by Alistair MacLeod available from Random House here.