The strong branches of a Scottish family tree

NO GREAT MISCHIEF By Alistair MacLeod W.W. Norton 283 pp., $23.95

Modern life is a careless archivist. The ways we used to record ourselves have been replaced by convenient cheats. Flimsy videotape has superseded the more secure photo album. Ephemeral e-mail threatens to erase letters that survived for centuries. To complicate matters, education and employment constantly split even the most cohesive families.

Against such ravages, Alistair MacLeod's new novel, "No Great Mischief," is a valediction forbidding mourning, a gorgeous celebration of family nostalgia and its staying power.

For members of the sprawling MacDonald clan, history began in 1779 when Calum MacDonald fled the troubles of Scotland for the New World with his wife and 12 children. Over the next 200 years, their family tree grows so thickly that every descendent lives in its shade.

In one sense, the entire novel takes place during an afternoon visit between two siblings. Alexander MacDonald makes the drive to his older brother's ratty apartment in Toronto every Saturday. It's an unpleasant burden that the wealthy orthodontist wouldn't consider neglecting. As his grandma frequently reminded him, "All of us are better when we're loved."

Even before he arrives, the family memories - stretching back for generations - begin to rise from the ground like mist. "I think of my grandparents a great deal, and, as in the manner of the remembered Gaelic songs, I do not do so consciously," Alexander says.

Past and present are blended here as seamlessly as twilight shifts to night. Most of the novel comprises flawlessly told stories from every season of the MacDonald history.

Alexander's memories begin with the hazy impressions of his parents, who dropped through the ice one night while crossing to the lighthouse on Cape Breton.

That tragedy chased his three older brothers into the woods to live by themselves in an abandoned cabin. He and his twin sister were raised by kind grandparents.

Even while Alexander grows up in the modern world, he continually laces back into the past, listening to his grandparents' stories and visiting his wild brothers, who have reverted to Gaelic in the forest.

When one of his cousins - another Alexander named for a common ancestor - is decapitated in an industrial accident, the narrator postpones his college education to join the MacDonald men in the uranium mines. Amid the treachery above ground and the harsh conditions below, the clan holds tight to their family motto: "Always look after your own blood," a tenet that becomes more evocative with every repetition.

Along the edges of this reverent reverie, efforts to dilute the past are everywhere: Alexander's well-heeled patients hope to erase the imprint of ancestry from their jaw lines; insatiable shoppers embrace the latest fads; political hawks fund weapons capable of destroying the planet - the ultimate affront to memory.

There's a majesty in these recollections that transcends sentimentality. MacLeod's rich, unpretentious style never hits a false note. "Whatever its inaccuracies," Alexander explains, "this information has come to be known in the manner that family members come to know one another because they share such close proximity. Or as Grandma would say, 'How could you not know that?' "

Indeed, how could they not know about the time their Grandpa was decorated with Christmas lights while he slept, or about the dog that would rather drown than be left behind in Scotland?

Until this novel, MacLeod, a Canadian, was known for his finely crafted short stories. "No Great Mischief" signals a remarkable shift to a longer form. He writes with stunning precision about the way these people build their own legends in the branches of triumph and tragedy. Before long, their family tree seems to include us, too.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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