In 1779, Calum MacDonald — called Calum Ruadh for his red hair — left the Scottish Highlands with his family, bound for a better life in Nova Scotia. At the end of the twentieth century, his descendant Alexander MacDonald works as an orthodontist in Ontario, though his heart has never left his homeland of Cape Breton. While on a visit to his alcoholic eldest brother, living in squalor in a Toronto apartment, his thoughts turn back to his early days growing up with his grandparents and twin sister on the island. His story is told in flashbacks, including flashbacks nested within each other at multiple levels. In a lesser writer’s hands, this might cause one to lose perspective, but here the reader’s attention is held throughout.
Alexander’s tale twines through various happenings of importance: the early deaths of his parents; the unusual friendship of his two grandfathers, one relaxed and jovial, the other careful and contained; and the wild, violent summer spent with his three elder brothers as miners deep within the Canadian Shield. Wherever he or his siblings venture, they’re identified both to themselves and to outsiders as members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, the “clan of the red Calum.” In this large extended family where relationships matter more than names, distant relatives in Scotland greet their Canadian kin with open arms, grandparents use Gaelic to recount tales of the old country, and even the family dogs are loyal unto death.
Lyrical and moving, No Great Mischief may not be historical fiction in its usual definition, but one would be hard-pressed to find a novel with a stronger sense of history. A Canadian bestseller of local interest yet truly international appeal, this novel is a highly recommended exploration of the pain of exile, the strength of family, and the inescapable nature of the past.
No Great Mischief was published by WW Norton in 2000 and has been reprinted many times since then. The photo above comes from the 2011 edition. This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review in August 2000.