Reading: Alistair MacLeod
It is such a delight for me to announce that author Alistair MacLeod will be reading at the Stockey Centre on Tuesday, 13 November, at 7:30 p.m. I have followed the writing of Alistair MacLeod since reading his first short story collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood in 1976, followed by As Birds Bring Forth the Sun in 1986. These books have been my gift of choice for any boy at the age of 16 or 17 as an introduction to adult literature. They are just as marvelous on re-reading all these years later as they were when I first read them so long ago. The writing of Alistair MacLeod is a pleasure to read - his use of language is a delight, and the lives of the people - the men of Cape Breton primarily - are so intensely realized as to be both heart-breaking and inspiring to the reader. The stories have now been collected into a lovely one-volume compilation Island.
Although Alistair MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan, he moved with his family to their farm in Cape Breton at the age of 10; and it is Cape Breton and its people that are at the heart of his short stories and his novel No Great Mischief. As his character Alexander does in the novel, Alistair MacLeod himself worked as a miner and a logger to finance his education, gaining a PhD from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana in 1968. He became a professor at the University of Windsor the following year and taught creative writing until his recent retirement. Always, he returns to Cape Breton in the summers to write.
No Great Mischief, MacLeod's first novel, was published to great expectation in 1999 and did not disappoint. It won two Canadian Bookseller Awards and Ontario's Trillium Award, and became a best-seller as one of The New York Times Notable Books of 2000. It missed out on a Governor-General's Award because of an oversight by the publisher on the application. It went on, however, to win one of the biggest literary prizes in the world, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
I always watch, as I read a novel, for the explanation of the title - happily Alistair MacLeod made it easy. About half way through the novel Alexander's grandfather, an amateur historian, quotes from a letter written by the English General James Wolfe, in which he states that the loss of the Scottish soldiers he has enlisted to fight the French in Quebec would be "no great mischief if they fall". It is said again when the much older Alexander visits his sister in Calgary and she tells him that the letter was written from Banff - Scotland. There is a wonderful amount of history woven into this novel, the heritage of the Cape Breton settlers. Reading the novel it is like listening to the voice of Alistair MacLeod; perhaps explained by the fact that he writes out each sentence of his books in long hand and then rewrites it until it is right. He reads it out loud because he wants it to have a type of rhythm, to tell a story. Which it does.
No Great Mischief is a novel about grief, about the death of those one loves, but ultimately about the power of "blood" - of family support and acceptance and the care of one for another. It is a novel about two brothers among a large family. Calum the eldest and Alexander the youngest - all touched by the death of their parents. Calum says to his brother " it's just the same sadness in different packages" as he tells of how much he still misses his parents - as do they all in their different ways. There is also the theme of loyalty - of family - and the recurring story of a dog. The fist dog followed the ship leaving Scotland with this family's ancestor and had to be pulled into his boat, arriving with them in Nova Scotia. This story is told from the perspective of those on the shore, staying behind in Scotland, and generations later the same story is told by the family from the perspective of their ancestors on the boat that day. It is a lovely example of the power of story. That dog was the beginning of many generations of dogs belonging to this family, including one owned by Alexander's parents. This dog could not accept the death of those he loved and waited for them at their home only to be shot by the new owner. The death of Alexander and Calum's parents is much thought about by the grandparents and the children; as is the concept of "lucky" and "unlucky". The grandparents, grieving for their own children, are grateful that they have the grandchildren - lucky. Calum is thought to be "lucky" because he was not with his parents that day and did not die with them. "I look at it differently" he said, (years later) "If I had been with them I might have saved them." This sentiment haunts Calum all of his life, as does the fact that he could not save another cousin from death in the mines - and in fact feels that he may have been the cause of his death - a guilt he carries for most of his life.
The novel spans the life of the MacDonald brothers and sister - ending with the words "All of us are better when we're loved". It is the love between these brothers - after all of the tragedy in their lives, that make this novel extraordinary - the work of a brilliant writer.