Books

Returning to MacLeod country

John DeMont November 8 1999
Books

Returning to MacLeod country

John DeMont November 8 1999

Returning to MacLeod country

Books

Cape Breton Island fills a long-awaited first novel

No Great Mischief

By Alistair MacLeod

McClelland & Stewart,

283pages, $32.99

Alistair MacLeod, 64-year-old father of six (two of them still at home), full-time university professor and all-but-anonymous master of the short-story form, does most of his writing in the summer in a cabin without a telephone or electricity, perched on an oceanside cliff on Cape Breton Island. He hates to rush the creative process. Most days, he arrives early in the morning with his thermos of coffee, sits down at his desk and takes out his notepad and ballpoint pen. Since MacLeod writes only a single draft, he works each sentence over in his mind for a long time before committing it to paper. Sometimes when he knocks off, usually around noon, he has crafted just a page or two—sometimes only a single image. “I don’t believe,” he says, “that writing is something that should be measured by the pound.”

By the ounce might be a better measure for a writer of such economy and restraint. MacLeod parcels out words like the priciest caviar: until now his considerable literary reputation has hung on two slim short-story collections: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, published in 1976, and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories, which appeared a decade later. His first novel, No Great Mischief, may ensure he finally has the name recognition his talent deserves. The critics have swooned, and the foreign rights have so far been sold in the United States, Britain and Germany.

MacLeod says he “has been carting this book around for 10 years or so.” His ever-patient fans will find the decade-long wait worth it. Readers of his short fiction will recognize that they are back in MacLeod country—his beloved Cape Breton, and the pathos, beauty, intensity and despair of the people who live there. They will also be familiar with MacLeod’s preoccupations: the mysteries of human relationships, the ties that bind people to family and place, the link between past and present. What may surprise them is the ease with which the fine miniaturist handles the bigger canvas.

Critics have always described MacLeod’s stories as traditional. So it seems fitting that his novel should begin in Scotland in 1779 with Calum Mac-

Donald, a dispossessed Highlander known as Calum Ruadh after his red hair, who sets out with his wife for Canada and arrives on Cape Breton Island a widower (his wife has died in passage) with their 12 children and a dog who “cares too much and tries too hard.” Those words become a coda for his people, who share a doomed sense of loyalty.

Whether in the mines of Africa, the tenements of Toronto or the farmhouses of Cape Breton, these folk live lives larger than their mean surroundings. MacLeods real gift, though, is for the image that resonates long after: a tree, cut from below, hangs suspended in the overgrown forest, its branches tangled up with those of its neighbours; a mining crew of Québécois, Cape Bretoners and natives briefly find common ground in a fiddle session.

Exile looms large over the novel. The central narrator, Alexander MacDonald, is a contemporary orthodontist in faraway Ontario, but seems unable to forget what he left behind. MacLeod, whose forebears arrived in Nova Scotia in 1791, knows a thing or two about yearning. His father was a hard-rock miner who spent his life heading back and forth from Cape Breton. The son has never been able to get the island out of his head either, even though he was actually born in North Battleford, Sask., and spends winters teaching creative writing and English literature at the University of Windsor. “I think about Cape Breton every day,” he told Macleans. “Every house has people from it who had to go away to make a living.” Even so, MacLeod makes sure he stays connected. There are the summers in the old family homestead. Even when he is far away he can always pull out his pad and pen. Then, Cape Breton comes magically alive.

John DeMont