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The mystery of No Great Mischief.

The village of Clandonald, originally a Scots-Irish settlement, lies about 19 miles up the road from where I grew up in rural Alberta. To my child's mind it was a strange and romantic place, peopled by family groups with complex social interactions impenetrable to outsiders, and inhabited, in the words of Dylan Thomas, by "wild boys innocent as strawberries."

For this reason, among others, it was a delight to read the acclaimed novel No Great Mischief by Canadian author Alistair MacLeod, which chronicles its own Clan Donald, from the arrival over two centuries ago on the shores of Cape Breton Island of patriarch Calum Ruadh (Red Calum) and his family from the Scottish Highlands. Narrated by one of his descendants, orthodonist Alexander MacDonald, its cast of characters includes a trio of "wild boys"--orphaned brothers whose attempts to fend for themselves and exploits of early manhood provide the book's more poignant moments.

Winner of IMPAC

It is 65-year-old MacLeod's first novel, although he has published collections of short stories, and in June he received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the work (which also won the Ontario Trillium award and two Canadian Bookseller Awards). With a prize of $172,000, the IMPAC is the world's most lucrative literary award. From the 98 novels originally nominated by public libraries around the globe, No Great Mischief was short-listed along with five others, including The Black-water Lightship by Dublin author Colm Toibin and Buddha's Little Finger by Moscow writer Victor Pelevin.

MacLeod, heralded as a "master literary craftsman" by the five IMPAC judges, reportedly took 13 years to complete his novel. A now-retired English professor and father of six who lives in Windsor, ON, he worked on Mischief during the summer months, writing the first drafts in longhand.

Lauded as "a dignified spiritual examination of heritage, loss and re-beginnings written with peeled and chiselled music", Mischief is a refreshing read, relying as it does on a luminous prose style, finely drawn characters and an actual story--classic literary devices that modern authors are often wont to abandon in favour of exploring the inner landscape of psychological angst.

And while it is not the role of fiction (heaven forfend) to provide positive role models, I must admit I found the book's unsentimental portrayal of masculine virtue men for whom providing for one's family is an accepted duty--a welcome contrast to today's more typical fictional representations of the louche or effete male.

No Catholic references

Yet something puzzles about No Great Mischief. Apart from the odd "God bless", the book is swept clean, in deed, one feels almost expunged, of any explicit references to the Catholic faith. It depicts a world strangely bereft of priests and their people.

Is it relevant to the work, or fair to the Catholic MacLeod to point this out? Well, my own view is that if one is any sort of Catholic at all one can't help but notice it. We may as well admit that we tend to view any Catholic, writing anything, as "one of our own," and to approach his work with certain expectations.

"This natural tendency aside, we're well enough aware that we can't assume a Catholic writer intends to effect evangelization through his work. Fiction is, after all as Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor observed, an art which imposes its own constraints on the artist (which may or may not conflict with his faith), and which should be judged, in any case, as a dramatic whole independent of the author's intentions.

As O'Connor wryly noted, "The question of what effect the Church has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us" (Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose)

Graham Greene notwithstanding, one can legitimately enquire if the Catholic writer who treats the faith seriously and sympathically faces, in Canada's literary climate, the prospect of marginalization, of being dismissed as irrelevant or parochial.

One can wonder, too, if the writer's contemplation of this prospect will result in an unwarranted angling of a text to preclude that possibility. One can further wonder if editorial persuasion may shape a text in a similar fashion.

This brings us back to No Great Mischief. The former point we must leave to conjecture, as author MacLeod had no wish to discuss the subject when invited to do so.

The book's publisher, Douglas Gibson, however, was more forthcoming on the latter point. The exclusion of things Catholic was not an editorial decision but "was the way the book came out," says the president of McClelland and Stewart Publisher. "We're not in the business of taking religion out or putting religion in. Alistair is a very polished writer and he knew what he wanted."

Mischief, Gibson says, is "deeply moral; it deals with the responsibility we all have for other people." Moreover, he adds, "there are two funerals in the book", one of which includes a Bible reading.

Catholic faith in the Highlands

The question of the dearth of explicit references to Catholicism is pertinent here for no other reason than that Mischief, while not claiming to be an historical novel, tells the story of a people for whom the Catholic faith, either allegiance to or apostasy from, would have been far and away the most significant aspect of their lives, literally, their life's blood.

The year Calum Ruadh crosses to the the New World is 1779. At that time, Catholics in the Highlands existed under savage penal laws, begun in 1560 and not mitigated until 1793, as we read in Fr. Angus Johnston's A History of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nova Scotia. These laws, he notes, under which the third offence of hearing or saying Mass was punishable by death, "sought nothing short of the total extermination of Catholicism."

(Parenthetically, many Highlanders supported Charles Edward Stuart in his abortive attempt in 1745 to win back the Scottish crown. Charles was the grandson of James II of England, whose conversion to Catholicism in 1671 precipitated the events that led to his losing the throne to William and Mary of Orange in 1688. His Catholic grandson is referred to variously as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender, depending on one's political and religious loyalties. In Mischief he is spoken of as the former.)

If the efforts of the penal laws were successful, and Calum Ruadh a Protestant, the island to which he immigrated was undeniably Catholic, the result of missionary efforts by French Jesuits who arrived in Nova Scotia as early as 1611, and who, by 1629, had established themselves in Cape Breton. The island was held by Catholic France until 1758.

Catholics in Cape Breton most likely fell under the burden of the English penal laws that same year, or certainly would have with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, recounts Fr. Johnston. In Nova Scotia, English penal laws were in effect since 1713, reenacted in 1749, and mitigated somewhat in 1793.

It is hazardous indeed to speculate on how a fictional piece has been affected by the choosing of a particular narrative trajectory, and more hazardous yet to suggest a work would have been richer had the author done something else. Still and all, I think the omission of religious references had its effect on No Great Mischief.

For one thing, despite its appealing narrative and gorgeous prose, it is in some ways a curiously bloodless book--a safe book. It bypasses just a shade too neatly that aching impulse of the human person to find and worship his Creator (who has revealed Himself to man), an impulse which perpetually manifests itself in ritual and liturgy, and perennially erupts in messy sectarian conflicts.

The second point is that Mischief reflects thoroughly modern sensibilities. The modern mind discounts, or perhaps more accurately, no longer sees the action of grace in nature, and is afflicted with a loss of the sense of the absolute. Mischief admits of no bond between bloodties and tradition, and the religious impulse so irrepressibly united with mystery of the human person. Without faith to animate it, tradition is soon gutted and sterile, and the family bond, a natural good in itself, descends into mere clannishness.

Lianne Laurence is a freelance writer and a former Managing editor of Catholic insight.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Laurence, Lianne
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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