Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief (1999)

Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief (1999) is a family saga, migration saga, and ethnic Scottish saga situated in the context of Canadian history and multiculturalism.  It tells the story of three generations of the descendants of Calum Ruadh (Calum the Red) who left Scotland in 1779, which constitute a branch of the MacDonald clan.  The author, Alistair MacLeod, is of Scottish-Canadian ancestry and he grew up at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where most of the novel is set. 

The story is predominantly told from the perspective of a descendant of Calum the Red, Alexander MacDonald, a relatively well-off orthodontist who had moved from the country to the city.  The story follows the narrator’s visit to his alcoholic and ailing brother Calum, whom he takes to the family homeland so he can die in the place settled by his kin.  The family history is covered in depth by cutting back and forth from the past to the present in reminiscences and reflections. 

MacLeod goes to some length to assert the ethnic status of the Scots in multicultural Canada, distinguishing them from the British mainstream.  In this context, the novel has an anti-English flavour. The novel emphasises the importance of the Gaelic language as a living language that is passed from generation to generation despite the prevalence of the English language in mainstream society. An appreciation of Scottish history is also used to establish a strong and distinctive sense of Scottish identity.  This includes references to Scottish-English tensions, conflicts and wars.  The title of the novel is a reference to the attitude of the British military commander, General James Wolfe before the battle of Quebec in 1759 who regarded the death of Scottish troops in battle as of ‘no great mischief’, since he regarded the Scottish troops under his command as untrustworthy and expendable. 

In the context of supporting Scottish ethnic and clan history, MacLeod also emphases the importance of family bonds, blood ties and loyalty.  Family members were expected to be mutually supportive.  For example, the narrator does not desert his brother Calum despite Calum’s previous jail term and degeneration into alcoholism. 

While the novel’s espousal values relating to Scottish ethnicity, clan history, and family loyalty are essentially conservative, they are placed in the context of Canadian multiculturalism, which is essentially progressive.  Multiculturalism was adopted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1971 as means to deal with Canada’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. It focused on cultural maintenance and exchange.  MacLeod’s novel expresses the view that the Scots should be appreciated as a distinctive ethnic group contributing to the Canadian ethnic mosaic.  In this context, the novel also expresses sympathy towards recently arrived migrants and towards Canada’s Indigenous people. 

The novel also appears to be sympathetic towards the salient politics of the 1960s, in particular the protests against the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War and its policy of conscription.  Canada was refuge for many young American men who wished to avoid the draft.  The novel depicts an American member of the MacDonald clan escaping to Canada to be protected by his Canadian relatives. The novel also treats the struggle of the Vietnamese for independence from the West as broadly equivalent to the struggle of the Scots for national independence from the British. 

The novel also appears to be broadly sympathetic towards Marxist values of class struggle and of sharing a working class consciousness in the face of exploitive capitalism.  Most members of the MacDonald clan are working class.  They are depicted as mostly hard-working, decent, principled people.  When a member of the extended family is killed in a mining accident, the manager of the company is shown to be more concerned about a loss in productivity due to the time off work of family members to attend the funeral.  The manager regarded the loss as being ‘only a man’, and not sufficient justification to hold up production.  In a sense, the ruling class in the capitalist system is shown to regard the working class as expendable in much the same way that the British General Wolfe is accused of regarding the Scots under his command as expendable. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: No Great Mischief meaning, No Great Mischief themes, No Great Mischief analysis, No Great Mischief notes