In No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod proves to the reader that it is impossible to talk about the Scottish-Canadian heritage without mentioning tradition, family and loyalty. MacLeod wrote this book about loyalty to family tradition. It is common to talk about these three things when one describes his family or his past in general, but in this book, MacLeod has included every single intricate detail about each one of the three aspects. Family plays the biggest role in this novel. Anything that the characters say or do usually has to do with family. The first time Alexander MacDonald, the narrator of the story, mentions family it is not his own.
It is one of the immigrant families picking berries along the road that he is driving on (MacLeod 1). This point takes him directly into a slight mention of his own family: the grandmother (3). Since there is no main character in the book, it is thought to be the narrator. However, I wish to disagree with this fact and say that the real main character in this book is Alexander's brother, Calum, who lives in Toronto. The first time Calum is introduced, one of the first things to come out of his mouth is of family: "I have been thinking the last few days of Calum Ruadh," (11).
We find out that Alexander has a close relationship with his brother and he drives to Toronto to visit him every weekend. This has become almost a tradition because he does not visit him to actually have a constructive conversation or to resolve a problem, although Calum has many of them, the most serious of which is drinking, but instead he visits him only for the sake of visiting him. It is also a tradition in that they do the same thing every time: they drink, not so much Alexander as Calum. We later find out that Alexander has a similar tradition set up with other family members. The most distinct of which is his relationship with his grandmother: Grandma.
When he visits Grandma, it is always the same routine: they sing long Gaelic songs, like the ones that their ancestors would. Alexander, for most of the first half of the book, does not talk about his present day family as much as his ancestors. He provides the reader with the information about how he wound up in Canada and what his ancestors had to go through to get here. Throughout this part of the book, Alexander makes it seem as if his family is more of an organization then a nuclear family of today, partly because of the things they do, partly because their relationships with each other, and partly because of their ultimate goal: survival. MacLeod gives us a blatant example of MacDonald's family having this quality when he describes them walking across the ice (48-50).
MacLeod shows us that they are a model with everyone perfectly aware of their roles: the elder siblings looking after their younger ones, with the parents as the chief supervisors of the whole operation. It seems that the goal of the ancestors is constantly there with the family. It is obvious that this goal is not fully brought to modern times but there are still traits of it in Alexander's current lifestyle. However, we see that the roles have been reversed with time. Now, the youngsters, Alexander and Catherine are at the head of the family. They are the more successful ones and in the brothers' case, it is obviously Alexander taking care of Calum, not vice versa as before.
They are more successful in that they were able to break away from the mining trade that their family has adopted in the past. They did this partly because of the fact that they simply did not want to work in the mines but also because they were the only family members to realize that it is not 1497 anymore and that it is time to move forward. However, the other four brothers are quite happy with what they have and do not mind the excessive physical labour that they undergo. They even seem to be happy to stay true to their roots.
I think that Alexander has realized that in order to stay true to your origins you do not necessarily have to do exactly what your ancestors did. Alexander knows his family just as much as Colin or any of the other three brothers who are still out on the East Coast. However, we later learn that Alexander did not move away to become a dentist only to escape the dirty work that he would be required to do in the mines. The incident I am talking about happens right after Alexander graduates from medical school. He is having a graduation party at his grandfather's house, when the phone rings and we learn that one of the people from the mine has died.
When the miners come back with the body of Alexander MacDonald, Alexander's cousin who he remembers from childhood, the phone rings again and we learn that Calum has to provide the same number of men as he had. Alexander volunteers to take up the empty spot (130-131). This proves to us that Alexander values his family so much and is so loyal to them that he is even willing to throw away the twelve years that he spent in medical school just to help his family out. He truly believes that family, and any group for that matter, is more important than the individual is. I would imagine that the family would make great Communist party members. He has worked so hard to get somewhere and he is willing to discard everything just because of this incident.
I am sure that although he only needed to work for under a year, because they found another person to take his place, that he would have stayed there until they found a person, whether it be in 2, 5, or even 10 years. The idea of family as an organization is being is confirmed several times throughout the beginning of the book. For example, Alexander did not know his own name until he went to school for the first. He did not know his name not because his parents and other relatives had been hiding it from him but only because he did not need to know it: all he knew is that he was gill e be ag Ruadh, the red-haired boy, and that he was of the clan Chalum Ruaidh (18).
Bigger boys began to make fun of him at recess and another older boy, the leader of the group, saved him from them because he was of the clan Chalum Ruaidh, because he was in, because he was one amongst many. No one cares who you are, what matters is what family you are from. Another verification was the part where a few random men walk up to Alexander and his cousin and hand them a 50$ bill just because they are of the clan Chalum Ruaidh (30). This is also another proof of the group, and therefore the group's benefit, to be more important than any individual's opinion or right. There are two very important things, a character and an incident, that summarize the attitude of the family towards loyalty in the book.
The first, the character, is Christy, Calum's horse, who he loves to death would pick her life over his own. Surprisingly, MacLeod does not spend as much time with animals in this novel as one would think that he would. The part with Christy summarizes the whole book, in respect to loyalty, on page 11: "Ah, poor Christy! How she always kept her part of the bargain." This is implying that in every small relationship between man and man or even man and animal there is a certain bargain that is agreed to without words. It creates a bond between the parties and makes them treat everything that they have to do with each other more carefully and secretively, in a good way. There are many of such tacit consents in this book: "My brother looked at me and I, in turn, looked at the faces of my grandparents and at the parents of the red-haired Alexander MacDonald. I nodded my head slightly." (130) Most of the traditions in this book are described very briefly but come up numerous times throughout the book.
The ancestors had their traditional song, dance & story telling in their time. That has survived until today. The modern family of Alexander MacDonald know the lyrics to the songs and the stories that they will, probably, in turn, to their kids. However, those traditions are becoming more and more scarce. Calum and especially Alexander are afraid to lose their heritage. They do not want to forget what their grandfathers and grandmothers have taught them.
Alexander, almost every week, drives to his Grandmother's house to sing songs in Gaelic. Calum is asking Alexander to come visit him every weekend, without exception. Alexander, by making these visits, is creating a tradition himself. I believe that that is more then half of the reason that he keeps on doing this.
I doubt that he actually wants to see his brother in the terrible state that he is almost always in and that he really, truly wants to sing Gaelic songs with his grandmother. This entire family really adores finding something that they really like and sticking with it right up to their death. For example, the way that grandfather dies is probably one of the best ways to go: he was relaxed, not in pain, and he was doing what he loved most: reading his history textbooks. In the latter part of the book, whenever there is any mention of grandfather anywhere he is always either reading a book or sleeping (228, 264). Everyone in the family is always content, no matter what kind of trouble they go through or how much they have enjoyed; they have always had enough to satisfy them. Towards the end of the novel, the reader is more and more convinced that the MacDonalds have serious problems.
Regardless of how attached you are to your past it is way too much to still live on the same piece of land that someone from your family, your ancestor, has lived on in 1497. The MacDonalds live there not because they cannot afford something better but because they truly cherish the land that their ancestors cultivated and took care of. At the very end of the book, when Calum wishes for Alexander to take him back out to the East Coast to die there, it seems to be almost apologetic and gives the reader the impression that the brothers have to keep reminding themselves of their heritage.