This summer, amongst much media attention, a re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was cancelled in Quebec City. It has been 250 years, since the Battle set us on a course to become Canada, a British and not French colony; yet, this event still divides us. And it doesn’t only divide French and English Canada; it divides English Canada within itself.
One of the many myths, anecdotes, stories and rumours, told in Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, is the story of the Scottish role in during the infamous battle. As the story goes, while British troops, supported by the 78th Fraser Highlanders, were attempting to secretly dock their boats along the St. Lawrence they were stopped by French sentries. Luckily, one of the Scottish Officers, being familiar with French as he had previously fought on the other side, was able to allay the sentries concerns by pretending to be a French supply ship. The British were able to land and win the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the Seven Years War, Canada and eternal bragging rights over the French. All thanks to the Scots!
Despite their contribution, General Wolfe, who would lose his life fighting this battle, had infamously said that it would be ‘no great mischief,’ if many Scots were to die on the Plains of Abraham. And there we have the title of Alistair MacLeod’s award winning novel, as well as just one of many stories that is told recurrently throughout the novel.
No Great Mischief is told from the point of view of Alexander MacDonald, or ‘ille bhig ruaidh’ as he is affectionately known by his family. MacDonald’s sprawling story traces his family’s heritage from their first arrival in Canada, “the land of trees,” in the late 18th century to his present day attempts to bring his eldest brother home to Cape Breton.
The story follows Alexander as he is visiting his eldest brother in Toronto and uses flashbacks and story telling to bring the reader through Alexander’s life. Born and raised in Cape Breton, largely by his grandparents after the untimely death of his parents, Alexander and his twin sister have a much easier existence than their older brothers. He goes to university, with the intention of becoming an orthodontist, but the plan is temporarily put on hold when one of his cousins dies in a mining accident and he has to step in to replace him. The summer working underground becomes a defining moment for the story, as it is used to fill in the details of his present relationship with his oldest, alcoholic brother.
The story is funny and touching and it is easy to see why MacLeod has garnered so much critical acclaim. The Canadian Encyclopedia refers to him as “a chronicler of the landscape and people of Cape Breton,” an apt description as the novel often relates to the interaction between people and the landscape. Often with negative results, the sea, the forest, the mines, are all intricately woven within the story of the MacDonald family.
A good beginning for the project!
Up next: Larry’s Party by Carol Shields