I came across Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief when I was looking for a book to teach to my grade 12 English class last year. Our book room at school was looking a little bare, yet we did had a class set of MacLeod’s novel.
I ended up teaching Fahrenheit 451 (which is another story all in itself), but No Great Mischief has been on my reading radar ever since.
There are a few ways that I was able to connect to MacLeod’s book:
1.) Somewhere down the line I have Scottish heritage. (I make a note to celebrate Robbie Burns day every year.)
2.) I spent a lot of time growing up with my Grandparents.
3.) My family comes from a small town where everybody knew my Grandpa’s last name.
4.) I have been to Northern Ontario and Toronto. (The heat and the flies are oppressive.)
5.) I, at one point, had a sister who lived in Calgary and although we are not technically twins, we look like twins.
6.) I’ve been to an orthodontist and often wondered what their hands would look like after wearing gloves all day.
MacLeod’s book is all about memories and being spirited away to the past. It is amazing how much time you can spend, without knowing it, remembering. It is also amazing how much memories that you can’t remember shape your life. The main character, Alexander MacDonald, is shaped by events that happened before he was born–his ancestors came from Scotland to the “Land of Trees”–and by events that he was too young to remember–his parents’ deaths.
Throughout the novel we meet Alexander’s family, we learn about his Scottish heritage, we learn about his brood of brothers, and we learn about how life has changed through his stories told and remembered one afternoon while visiting his brother.
One of the stories / memories that stood out to me the most was the retelling of the music that was played at the mining camps in Ontario. Alexander describes how he and his family (brothers and cousins) and a group of French Canadians would remember their homes by playing music. Moreover, it is the description of the French Canadians’ music that stuck with me.
“Sometimes when we passed the bunkhouses of the French Canadians, we could hear them singing and playing their own music through the partially opened windows. Many of their violin jigs and reels were like our own, although played at a faster tempo. We could hear them slapping their feet on the plywood floors and clapping their hands together or upon their thighs without ever missing a beat. Sometimes we could hear them ‘playing the spoons’ in accompaniment to their music, the rhythmic clicking of the spoons, pilfered from the dining hall, changing in texture as they snapped off the hand, the thigh, the knee, the elbow, or the shoulder in time” (147).
Having lived in Winnipeg for a few years growing up, I have a few memories of my favourite festival: the Festival du Voyageur! This was a week long celebration of Metis / Voyageur history. Our school would have a day-long celebration: assemblies with bands, complete with spoons for the students; weaving and sewing, I suppose like weaving and sewing nets; French jig dancing, where you only moved your feet; and the outdoor dog sled races with toboggans. I know that there were other events and stations around the school that I can’t remember, but I do remember the fun and the joy of celebrating a collective memory of Winnipeg’s history and the history of French Canadians in the area.
In fact, they still celebrate Festival du Voyageur in Winnipeg. Although my memories are fuzzy and I have no one else to talk with who shared the memories, I can remember a few things: playing the spoons, French jig dancing, and the dog sled races. Also, one thing that stands out to me, and still gets stuck in my head, is La Chanson du Voyageur.
That is the interesting thing about memories: they are best when you can share the events collectively and then spend time with those same people recalling the memories. With that in mind, another stand out moment in the novel is when Alexander’s twin sister goes to Scotland for a visit. While there, it is like she has gone ‘home,’ or so the locals tell her. She is a natural and seems to belong in her ancestors’ village. In fact, she feels so at home in the Scottish village and with the people there that she forgets they don’t know the stories about her life in the “Land of Trees.” While trying to share the story of her parents’ death, which all of the people in her Canadian town know about, the villagers tell her, “We are sorry. Where was this island?” To which she replies, “Oh, I forgot you didn’t know . . . I feel somehow that I have known you all my life and that you should know everything about me.” (166).
Although not my favourite book, I am glad that I stumbled on MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. It felt that somehow, through the description of the French Canadian music, I was finally able to share my memories of Festival du Voyageur with someone. I suppose books are like that: “The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest [people] of past centuries” (Rene Descartes).