65 pages 2 hours read

Alistair MacLeod

No Great Mischief

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


No Great Mischief is a 1999 bildungsroman by Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod. The story begins with Alexander MacDonald, a successful Canadian orthodontist, driving to Toronto to visit his brother, Calum. He searches for his brother’s apartment through the city’s seedier districts and eventually finds the right place. Calum is an alcoholic, one of many people left behind by the modern world. They speak together in English and Gaelic, reminiscing about their family. As Calum becomes progressively drunker, he stops shaking, and Alex leaves to buy more alcohol.

The visit prompts Alex to think about his past. As he walks through Toronto to buy more alcohol, he remembers his family’s history. A man named Calum Ruadh brought his whole family across from Scotland in 1779, his wife dying during the trip. The family settled in Cape Breton, though his family spread across Canada and became known as clann Chalum Ruaidh. The family’s shared physical characteristics make them very recognizable.

Alex’s parents died when he was very young. He and his twin sister, Catherine, were raised by their paternal grandparents, whom they call Grandpa and Grandma. His maternal grandfather—known simply as grandfather—is a widower whose wife died in childbirth. All of the grandparents are distantly-related members of clann Chalum Ruaidh. The family is huge, and Alex has many aunts and uncles, most of whom speak Gaelic.

Many years before, Alex’s father took a job as a lighthouse keeper after leaving the Navy. He and his family lived on the small island with the lighthouse. When Alex was 3, he and his sister stayed with their grandparents while their parents, and older brother Colin, crossed the ice on a difficult night to reach the island. Calum and two other older brothers were away with cousins at the time. The journey across the ice ends badly, and Alex’s parents and Colin die.

Alex and his sister are too young to fully comprehend what has happened. Members of clann Chalum Ruaidh attend the funeral and promise to help the orphaned children. Alex and Catherine live with their paternal grandparents while Calum and the two older brothers take up residence in an old cabin in the countryside.

The narrative jumps back and forth between the past and the present, as Alex mulls over which alcohol to buy for Calum. Alex’s older brothers drop out of school and work the land. When Alex and his sister visit, they marvel at the boys’ rugged lifestyle. Alex fights with his cousin, also called Alexander MacDonald, over their relationship with their grandparents: The cousin accuses Alex of being lucky that his parents are dead, while Alex believes his grandparents love him differently in comparison to the cousin. Grandpa breaks up the fight, one of the few times he is evidently angry.

As Alex tries to select a drink for Calum, he thinks about the fruit pickers across Canada. He thinks about his time as a teenager, remembering the excitement of visiting his brothers. He goes fishing with them on one occasion and remembers Calum trying to remove a tooth with a pair of pliers. When it does not work, he ties the tooth to a horse and wrenches it free, washing out his mouth with saltwater. Alex thinks about his work as an orthodontist and the banal advice he hands out to patients.

Over time, Alex’s older brothers begin to wander in search of work and excitement. They encounter many members of clann Chalum Ruaidh, who help them out of difficult situations. The stories slowly filter back to Alex and his grandparents. Alex’s grandfather helps Grandpa with his tax returns and they share different versions of history.

Catherine grew up to be an actress and then married a petroleum engineer. She visits Scotland occasionally, visiting places which are important to the history of clann Chalum Ruaidh. She and Alex share these memories when he goes to visit, often over glasses of whisky. In the present day, protestors in Toronto remind Alex of a whale which washes up on the shore near his brothers’ cabin.

Alex graduates from college. His professor advises him to move far away to make more money as an orthodontist. The graduation is attended by Alex’s grandparents on both sides, as well as his aunt and uncle. On the drive home, Grandma recalls a letter she received from a relative in San Francisco, asking for help with their son. The boy wants to avoid the Vietnam draft and the family agrees to take him in. On arriving back at home, Alex receives presents from his grandfather and then discovers that his cousin has died while working in a mine with other members of clann Chalum Ruaidh, including his brothers.

The body is brought home from the uranium mine. The foreman was reluctant to let all of the clann Chalum Ruaidh leave at once, so they collectively quit. Calum arrives home with his hand bandaged. He punched a police officer during a traffic stop. When the police arrive to question him, the family wards them off. On the day of the funeral, the police close the roads to allow the family to mourn.

The mine superintendent calls Calum and begs for the men to return. He offers a large pay increase, and the men accept. However, they are one man short. Alex agrees to go with them and take his dead cousin’s place for the summer. He arrives at the mining camp to find it split along ethnic lines. As well as clann Chalum Ruaidh, there are also the French-Canadians, who seem to harbor a grudge against Calum and his family.

The mining site is busy. Alex quickly picks up the job, learning about the mine itself and the camp. Alex’s group members often speak Gaelic to one another; they are famed for their skills with dynamite and are richly rewarded for their good work, though this causes resentment among many of the other groups on site.

The mining camp is isolated from the outside world, but there is a nearby car park where passersby and other people congregate. Beer is sold and other vices are indulged. Alex and Calum meet a young man with red hair who knows a little Gaelic. They invite him back to the camp and feed him well. The man then plays fiddle for the whole camp; the different groups come together to play music and dance. This is eventually broken up by the superintendent, and the man eventually disappears. Two weeks later, Calum and Alex receive a gift of moose meat from the man.

Catherine tells Alex about a trip she took to Scotland. After several strange incidents during the night, she takes a car and drives out to a castle near the family’s ancestral home. There, she meets a woman who recognizes her heritage and invites Catherine in to her home. Once Catherine is inside, more and more local people arrive. They share stories about the clann Chalum Ruaidh and sing songs in Gaelic.

In the present day, Alex is still walking through the streets. He thinks again of the fruit pickers and the difficulty they face when they want to remain in Canada. He remembers the mining camp and the rapid progress they made. However, rumors circulate that the death of Alex’s cousin was not an accident but, rather, was the work of the French Canadians. Alex realizes that it was guilt which made him take his cousin’s place.

When they are not working in the mine, Alex and his brothers share memories of their youth. They tell the story of their Grandpa, who braved a vicious storm to bring them hay for their horses. When he was crossing the ice, he drunkenly fell asleep on his sleigh and found himself stuck. He wandered back to the house, suffering from frostbite, and stayed with the boys for a short while. Eventually, he turned the near death into a humorous anecdote.

When Alex reaches an alcohol store in the present day, he purchases beer and gives his change to a homeless man outside. The store clerk chases the man away, and Alex carries the beer back to Calum’s apartment. When he returns, Calum begins to drink the beer, and they talk about the weather and their Grandpa’s dirty jokes. When Alex finally departs, he leaves money for Calum and returns home to his wife and children.


Alex drives home across Canada, thinking about his brother, the fruit pickers, and his own memories. One of the memories is of Marcel Gingras, a French-Canadian man whom he met at the mining camp. Marcel taught Alex a bit of French, and Alex taught Marcel a bit of English. The pair were friendlier than most other members of their respective ethnic groups. Alex learns that his cousin is arriving from San Francisco, so he borrows Marcel’s car to go and collect him. Calum goes with him, determined to help the family in any way he can. A French-Canadian named Fern Picard steps up his aggressive behavior toward Calum. The next day, Alex and Calum depart to collect the American cousin.

As Alex and Calum drive to the airport (a 100-mile round trip), they share memories. Both men are exhausted, having departed straight after a shift. They will not have any time to sleep in their bunks when they return to the camp. They take it in turns to drive, though a tire bursts and they have to find a new one. They are pulled over by a policeman, who issues them a number of tickets. Calum throws the tickets out of the window as soon as they lose sight of the policeman. Calum talks more about the feud with Fern Picard and the French Canadians; it began in a barfight years earlier, and Calum suspects that the death of their cousin was not an accident. They meet Alexander MacDonald (who shares the same name as the protagonist) at the airport, recognizing his familiar features instantly. On the ride back to the camp, they take it in turns to drive and sleep. They use the dead Alexander MacDonald’s credentials to register the new arrival, and no one notices.

Alexander, the new arrival from San Francisco, impresses at the mine. Aesthetically, he looks like the rest of clann Chalum Ruaidh. He was a star quarterback in the United States, but a knee injury discouraged colleges from recruiting him, though it did not stop the Army. Alex looks at press clippings from sports papers describing Alexander’s athleticism. News is slow to arrive in the camp, but Alex is gradually developing the sensation that the world outside is changing. Calum says that the new arrival has impressed him so much that Alex has the opportunity to return home and go back to his orthodontist’s training. Alex refuses.

Alexander bonds with Alex, as well as with many others in the camp. Unlike most of clann Chalum Ruaidh, he is not averse to socializing with the other ethnic groups. He often plays poker with the French Canadians. One day, the work on the mine is halted when the hoist breaks. The repair will not be complete for several days, so the men begin to drink and seek entertainment in the parking lot outside the camp. After hours of boredom, Fern Picard approaches Calum, and a fight breaks out. Alexander slips away while Alex involves himself in the brawl. Fern Picard pins Calum to the ground, not before Calum grabs hold of a wrench and uses it to kill the French-Canadian man. The fight stops instantly.

The police are called, and everyone is taken to jail. Calum is charged with second-degree murder. Everyone else is released, and they begin to depart from the mining camp. In the clann Chalum Ruaidh bunk, they open Alexander MacDonald’s locker to find a treasure trove of stolen goods, including Fern Picard’s wallet. No one ever sees the American again.

Calum receives a life sentence, due in part to his previous encounters with the law. Alex and his brothers go their separate ways, and clann Chalum Ruaidh seems to break apart. Alex’s Grandpa dies at a party, and his grandfather dies while reading a book at home. Alex’s Grandma lives to be 110, but dementia robs her of her ability to recognize Alex when he visits.

When Calum is released many years later, he tells Alex a few stories about his time in prison. Eventually, in the present day, Alex arrives home to find his wife and children waiting for him. He notices an old annotation in his phone book, a missed call from Marcel Gingras, which he tries to return but fails.

Six months later, Alex’s phone rings, and Calum informs him that it is time. Alex collects Calum from Toronto, and they drive together to Cape Breton, braving a terrible storm. Despite the hellish conditions, they make it to their old family home. Alex is aware that he is driving Calum to his death but accepts his brother’s wish. As they drive, they share stories. They arrive home.