Mary Beth Writes

I read a remarkable book that I think some of you might like to read, also.

It’s “No Great Mischief” by Alistair MacLeod (1936-2014) and it is considered one of the Canada’s finest novels.  

The book is set in the 1980’s; Alexander MacDonald is the narrator. Curiously there will be three Alexander MacDonalds in this novel; each lives out a particular destiny of immigrants to North America, each moves the modern story ahead.

The novel begins as Alexander, now a middle-aged orthodontist, visits his oldest brother Calum who is a sweet but broken alcoholic living in a shabby hotel in Toronto.  Alexander remembers the almost mythic stories of their family; stories and experiences that carried these two men into their adult lives.

Their family history started with the Calum MacDonald who left Scotland in 1779 with his family.  They settled into Cape Breton where sons and daughters will mostly marry, stay, and raise the next generations. The Clan MacDonald is tough; their Scottish Gaelic heritage stays strong in them. The tragedies that happen seem to glue them closer together.

 “No Great Mischief” isn’t a 'family saga' Hollywood tale. Instead, as the title forewarns, the MacDonalds are at the mercy of history.

In 1759 General James Wolfe led the British military to attack the French Fort of Quebec. This seemed impossible to do – the fort was positioned on 180-foot cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

Wolfe sent Scottish Highlanders UP those cliffs, just before dawn; in what nearly everyone thought was a suicide mission.

Plus there’s this. The British army decimated the Highlanders in 1746 at Culloden. After that slaughter the Brits continued to pillage, rape, and harass the Highlanders for years.

Tragically and ironically, the only allowed path for young Highlander men to carry on the glory of their fathers – was to join the British army. ONLY Scots who joined the British military were allowed to wear the tartan. Plus in the British army there was a way of supporting the family.

Which mean on September 13, 1759, when General Wolfe wanted to attack Quebec, he ordered his Highland unit to climb the cliffs, to haul up with them their military equipment, to sneak across the Plains of Abraham (a farm that owned by a farmer named Abraham) and then to attack the weakly defended French fort. They succeeded at this, which is why today Canada is English, not French.

Wolfe, who had been at Culloden, sent the Highlanders first because he knew they were strong, wily, stubborn warriors.  Plus, as Wolfe wrote, if they died it would be “no great mischief”. No great loss to lose these men who were not as valuable as the English. Wolfe’s racism allowed him to order “second class warriors” up those impossible cliffs.

Except the Highlanders succeeded. At one point a French sentry called out and Simon Frasier, one of the so-called uneducated Highlanders – who had actually studied and lived in France – replied in French, thus not alerting the sentry that an entire army was just under the lip of the cliff.

The MacDonalds of Cape Breton are descended from those feisty, fighting, intelligent, always-singing, story-telling Scots Highlanders.  They are larger-than-life characters.  Their family suffers grievous losses.  Alexander and Calum remember their stories, their parents, and their brother. They remember hard times, the horse that would come running to pull in their boat, the dogs that they loved and who loved them. They remember their old Gaelic songs that would go on and on and on.

“No Great Mischief” seems to be about the entangling truth of families.  When we know our stories, we know who we are. We are surrounded by what it means to be us.

But those old stories might draw us in to act in ways that will destroy our lives. To become authentic adults, we need to separate ourselves from our myths.

We can do this. It is our work to do.

Yet even if we struggle our way through destinies that seemed predestined – if we become authentic selves instead of players in the battles, prejudices, and lost loves of previous generation; if we disentangle ourselves from the craziness of our parents and ancestors – then what? We become not the inheritors of glory, but orthodontists and mid-range artists; polite people who realize we are neither giants nor heroes. 

When we finally succeed in knowing what is myth and what is us – who are we now?

From “Cumha Ceap Breatuinn” which translates to “Lament for Cape Breton”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZCFJaf_gHA

“There’s a longing in my heart now

To be where I was

Though I know that it’s quite sure

I never shall return.”

 ...

I wrote this story, long ago, about discovering who we are behind our family’s tales and myths: http://www.marybethdanielson.com/content/house-blue-river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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