Home and Away: Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief

I wonder if I would have liked No Great Mischief more if I’d never moved to Nova Scotia. Then its invocation of the landscape and culture of Cape Breton might have appealed to me as much as any other intensely local fiction does: I might have appreciated unreservedly its artfully crafted sentences offering a vicarious journey into an unfamiliar place, its tender but unsentimental portrait of the people who live there and love it, its artful and often touching intertwining of stories about the past and the present. No Great Mischief does offer these things, and I did understand, as I read it, why it is so admired.

The problem I had, though, is that No Great Mischief seemed too much part and parcel of the things I don’t like about Nova Scotia, things that from a distance might be engagingly quaint or exotic but that up close I have found wearing, even alienating: clannishness, insularity, a backwards-tugging resistance to change, hostility to outsiders. Soon after we bought our first house in Halifax, one of our watchful neighbors commented “you’re not from around here, are you?” That there’s even a common expression for people like us (“come-from-aways”) perhaps says enough. And there’s not just suspicion and resentment of new people who arrive: there’s also perpetual mourning and resentment about Maritimers who go away, whether they choose to or have to, and a reflexive and (in my experience, anyway) largely unjustified insistence that this is the best place on earth, with the best people. “We’re the salt of the earth!” declared one of those same neighbors–neighbors who watched thieves make off with the newly planted flowerpots from the front of our house and didn’t interfere, note the license plate, or knock on our door to give us a heads up. (We have since moved.) 

It’s not that there aren’t good things about life in Nova Scotia. Over time (and I’ve been here 23 years now, so nearly half my life) I’ve learned to appreciate and even cherish many aspects of it. We’ve also met many lovely people–though it’s interesting how many of the ones we are friendliest with have also come from away. But No Great Mischief is basically a paean (if a somewhat melancholy one) to Cape Breton and its way of life. That its narrator, one of several Alexander MacDonalds in the novel, has moved on (he is a successful orthodontist in Ontario) seems to him something faintly sorrowful, even a little bit shameful, as if his profession is somehow less authentic than fishing or mining, or his modern urban life, with its comforts and conveniences, is somehow a lesser life than his parents’ or grandparents’ back on the island. These attitudes are not unique to the Maritimes–somehow, city-dwellers and urban professionals never seem to count as “real” citizens the way farmers do–but they are certainly conspicuous here.

Unfortunately, then, in spite of its admirable literary qualities including its quietly powerful evocation of place, No Great Mischief grated on my nerves, precisely because it is so invested in the fixity of Maritime culture and its fixation on its roots. For a short novel about contemporary Canada, No Great Mischief sure dedicates a lot of space to Culloden and Glencoe and Killiecrankie, and everywhere our Alexander goes he runs into yet another member of clann Chalum Ruaidh (there’s a lot of Gaelic in the novel too). Not that there’s anything wrong with all of this! It’s just that in my experience it is a nicer world to visit as a tourist (fiddles and bagpipes and tall ships, oh my!) then to live in as an outsider. Sure, the cashiers at Tim Hortons call me “honey” and “sweetie”–but I’ve found people in New York or Vancouver or London just as helpful and friendly, and beneath the surface display of folksiness here there can be a deeper layer of suspicion. (In case it doesn’t go without saying, #notallMaritimers, your mileage may vary, etc.)

As I was reading No Great Mischief I found myself thinking a lot about my own upbringing, which was quite unlike Alexander’s. That difference might, I suppose, be another contributing factor in my resistance to the novel (and to this region). I don’t just mean the geographical differences, though there’s no question that to me the North Shore Mountains will always look more beautiful and lift my spirits higher than anything here. For one thing, my immediate family was (is) the opposite of sprawling. The only relative I knew well outside of my parents and two siblings was my paternal grandmother; although she came from a large family, we had very little contact with any of its other branches, and my mother’s relatively small family was far away. Our family life revolved almost exclusively around the five of us: we did a lot of activities together, and we developed an array of family traditions, especially around holidays, that gave us a strong but highly specific and idiosyncratic sense of continuity and identity. It is inconceivable to me that I would ever run into anyone else anywhere in Canada and feel an immediate bond, as happens to the novel’s many MacDonalds. We enjoyed a kind of self-sufficiency that in retrospect was quite empowering (my siblings and I are nothing if not self-directed) though it may also have allowed us a little too much freedom to cultivate our eccentricities. (Our significant others are banned from commenting on this point!)

At the same time, in other ways my upbringing was anything but insular, as the interests, activities, and friends we were engaged with were more global than local. One thing we were all involved in one way or another, for example (not always actively or voluntarily, as my brother would attest) was international folk dancing, which meant that we were very aware that different places in the world had rich and complex histories as well as their own traditional music, dances, and food. Many of the people we met through folk dancing were from these other countries, too, which made the cultural diversity of the world something real and embodied for us, not just an abstraction or a spectacle. I don’t mean to idealize this somewhat peculiar if often delightful subculture–just to observe that it arises from and cultivates people’s interests in how other people live in the world. My own most sustained form of involvement was my participation (along with my father’s) in a Greek performing group called the Philhellenic Dancers: the leader was Austrian, his wife was Irish, and the rest of us came from many places–some were even actually Greek! Here we are at Greek Day c. 1985, festive if blurry:

Besides folk dancing, there were other ways in which my childhood attention was drawn outwards: classical music, which brought us into contact with a lot of different musicians, again mostly from elsewhere; reading, which for me, for whatever reason, rarely meant reading Canadian literature; travel, which for us was limited and not glamorous, as we mostly went camping, but was as likely to take us south into Washington State and Oregon as north up the B.C. coast. The U.S. border crossing was familiar and easy in those days: we used to drive all the way to Bellingham, WA just to go to Baskin Robbins, before it opened in Canada. My mother was American (she hails from New Hampshire – live free or die!) and my sister and I were both born in the U.S., so although I knew it was a different country, I didn’t think that difference mattered very much. I still find eastern Canada more foreign than I ever did Seattle! Winter, hockey, Tim Hortons: out here these are assumed to define the Canadian experience, but I knew nothing of them. Vancouver itself I experienced as a place where people from all over came and went–again, I don’t want to idealize the city or gloss over its faults and complexities, which are naturally much more apparent to me now than they were then, but for better and for worse I was raised when multiculturalism was the buzzword and that’s what I thought I saw and what I thought was good. (For some reflections on ways the feel-good message of multiculturalism obscured lessons I should have learned about the history of my own country, see this post.) The cumulative effect of all of these factors is that while I love and miss Vancouver, I feel tied to it individually, not because I developed a strong sense of regional identity.

All of this is by way of saying, not that my own background is the “right” way, but that because of it the close-knit but wide-ranging family depicted in No Great Mischief and the constant pull they all feel back towards a specific history and a particular place both seemed somewhat claustrophobic to me, and that my personal experience has made me skeptical of the hold a certain idea(l) of the Maritimes still has. To be fair, MacLeod’s novel is not naively nostalgic and he doesn’t unreservedly romanticize the world or the people he depicts. The novel is structured, after all, around the consequences of an act of tragic violence that is itself the result of a clash between two strongly defined and irreconcilable group identities. There and in the historical allusions lurk powerful warnings against holding grudges or deciding people’s worth because of who you think they are, because of an inability to move on, or past. Still, those larger implications seemed to me not nearly as important to the novel’s affect and ethos as the idea that there is only ever one place where you really belong and it isn’t for everybody. 

I realize that I’ve given hardly any actual details about and no specific quotations from MacLeod’s novel. It turns out that’s not what I felt like writing about! If you’re interested in a proper review of No Great Mischief, here’s the New York Times review from 2000, which seems a judicious one to me, and here’s a pretty warm one from Quill and Quire.

In the Gallery: A Study in Contrasts

Maud Lewis WindowWe are enjoying a nice snow-free interlude in Halifax this weekend so I thought I should make the most of it and actually go do something today (besides the grocery shopping, which is my standard Saturday chore). I settled on a trip to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where I haven’t been in many years.

The AGNS is probably best known (especially since the release of Maudie) for its Maud Lewis collection, which includes her improbably tiny and delightfully colorful house–yes, the entire house:

Charming and joyful as the house is, with all its vibrant colours and free-spirited florals, it is hard to imagine two people actually living in it: it looks like a playhouse when you first see it, and at about 12′ x 12′ it is about the size of a single room in most contemporary homes.

Lewis was a folk artist and her work is bright and simple and unsophisticated. I find it cheering but also fairly uninteresting:

It has a childlike quality to it that is particularly endearing, for me anyway, in her cartoon-like animals:

While these creatures amuse me and the landscapes charm me, nothing about Lewis’s work engages me deeply: I have no urge to linger over it. I suppose that’s consistent with its naive or primitive style–it’s not supposed to be layered or sophisticated. Still, just as a matter of personal taste, I prefer art that’s more complex and less cute. The Maud Lewis gallery has a lot of personality, but its interest for me is not really aesthetic.

Also in the AGNS (but only until January 28, so I am very glad I went when I did) is an exhibit called “Centuries of Silence: the Discovery of the Salzinnes Antiphonal.” This is a completely different experience: intellectually and historically fascinating, and aesthetically thrilling.

The Salzinnes Antiphonal is a 16th-century manuscript that was discovered in the library of Saint Mary’s University here in Halifax. It has been painstakingly restored and is displayed along with a fine and thoughtful collection of related materials, including portraits of some of the abbesses who presided over the Abbey of Salzinnes in Belgium at the time of its creation:

The volume itself has stunning full-page illustrations:

The music has been recreated in modern notation and recorded; as you explore the exhibit its ethereal, otherworldly beauty surrounds, calms, and inspires you.

The exhibit includes other works of art collected by the Archbishop who was most likely responsible for bringing the Antiphonal to Halifax; paintings of and records from the Abbey that was its source and original home (including three 16th-century papal bulls); a video demonstrating the process of creating an object so beautiful and lasting, from preparing the vellum to layering in the gold leaf; and these hand-sewn recreations of the nuns’ habits, a project by a student in Dalhousie’s Costume Studies program:

I found it all fascinating, as you can probably tell! Though the Antiphonal is in some ways quite an imposing object, and though of course the original volume, though on display, is inaccessible behind its protective glass, still in its own way it felt every bit as intimate as Maud Lewis’s house. The illustrations, reproductions of which are displayed on the walls, have many details that personalize them, reminding us that this work too was done by very human hands.

It was a nice afternoon, especially rounded off with tea and a browse at the Halifax Central Library. I should get out more–and weather permitting, I will!

A Taste of Nova Scotia

My lovely mother has been visiting us, and today we went exploring a bit. I don’t like highway driving (or really any driving, though of course I do what I have to), so I was happy to find an article about fun things to do around Halifax without a car. One suggestion was taking the bus out to Fisherman’s Cove. Here are a few pictures of this lovely spot. They will remind me, when I get cranky in a few months about being trapped in the winter hell-hole that is Halifax, that there are nice things about being in Nova Scotia!








Also, if you actually do want a “taste” of Nova Scotia, this is the book for you.

Holiday Reading

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! It is a beautifully crisp sunny fall weekend here: I treated myself to an amble through the Public Gardens on Saturday, where the gold-tinged foliage provided a lovely backdrop for the remaining bright flowers. The Gardens are my favourite spot in the city, a perfect place for “a green thought in a green shade.”



For one reason or another, I was feeling pretty grim by the end of last week, so I decided to treat the holiday weekend like actual time off from my day job. This means that although today I have had to turn my attention back to reading for work (The Big Sleep and Jane Eyre are up next week), I managed to get through two books just for fun. They are polar opposites, too, which made it just that much more entertaining to read them one after another.

venetiaThe first was Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which a number of Heyer fans I know have identified as one of their favorites. It also came up in a discussion here in the summer about whether Heyer’s books ever get sexy, as opposed to romantic. I thoroughly enjoyed Venetia: it is brisk and witty, which is typical, but also full of lines of poetry (which is not quite so typical). It also has a more adult heroine,  and it does have more of that frisson that I was wondering about: “She had not enjoyed being so ruthlessly handled,” Venetia reflects after the first, quite improper, kiss,

but for one crazy instant she had known an impulse to respond, and through the haze of her own wrath she had caught a glimpse of what life might be. . . . if Edward [her dull suitor!] had ever kissed her thus! The thought drew a smile from her, for the vision of Edward swept out of his rigid propriety was improbable to the point of absurdity. Edward was sternly master of his passions; she wondered, for the first time, if these were very strong, or whether he was, in fact, rather cold-blooded.

Meeting her morally problematic mother, Venetia is struck by her lacy lingerie:

It was not at all the sort of garment one would have expected one’s mama to wear, for it was as improper as it was pretty. Venetia wondered whether Damerel would like the sight of his bride in just such a transparent cloud of gauze, and was strongly of the opinion that he would like it very much.

Well! Hardly the ruminations I’m used to from a Heyer heroine! And much later, when the usual convolutions of the plot have been managed, she “melts” into her rakish lover’s arms:

He held her in a crushing embrace, fiercely kissing her, uttering disjointedly: ‘My love — my heart — oh, my dear delight! It is you!’

It was a bit of a relief to be able to enjoy the courtship plot without any shadow of concern that the heroine seemed just a bit too young and naive to play her part in it. But it was Venetia’s smart independence that made the book particularly delightful for me: she doesn’t appreciate anyone making decisions or speaking for her, and she doesn’t hesitate to do what she thinks is best to orchestrate the outcome she desires.

brokenMy other book was Tana French’s Broken Harbour. It seems odd to call it ‘fun,’ as it is just as dark and intense and frightening as the other books in her Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s also just as well and artfully written, with just as convincing and distinct a narrator and just as complex and psychologically fraught a plot. By the end, though, I found I was actually a little weary of the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, the heavy-handed revelations and insistent reminders of just how much the case resonated with (and screwed up) the detective. Rattling off my first impressions on GoodReads, I found myself wondering if my problem is related to the subgenre of crime fiction French is working in: I don’t usually read suspense novels or psychological thrillers, and Broken Harbour is as much of that kind as it is a detective  novel or police procedural. I found myself eventually skimming a bit through the confessions and backstories just to find out what had actually happened and what would come of it. This is my way of saying “it’s not you, it’s me,” I suppose! But the novel did seem too long (not unlike some of Elizabeth George’s more recent ones). There is an awful lot French does brilliantly though: setting, in particular, and the theme of people becoming desperate as they try to hang on to their dreams, or to reach the futures they yearn for — at whatever cost, it often turns out. French is definitely the best new crime writer I’ve tried in a long time — so thanks especially to Dorian for bringing her to my attention!

And now it’s back to work, though I will pick out something to read in the interstices. My book club has chosen The Talented Mr. Ripley for our next meeting, so it might be that, though I also recently picked up Beautiful Ruins (which looked like it might be refreshingly different).

Thomas H. Raddall and Stephen Kimber, Halifax: Warden of the North

Canadian history is not boring! Surprise!

As I romped through Thomas Raddall’s lively and very informative history of my adopted city, I found myself wondering why I have never been interested in Canadian history. Whose fault is that? I’d blame boring teachers except that I can’t really remember being taught any Canadian history in school. I started reading historical fiction at the tender age of five–I still have my tattered copies of Jean Plaidy’s The Young Elizabeth and The Young Mary Queen of Scots–so can I blame my total oblivion to Canadian history on the absence of equally romantic and accessible historical novels with Canadian heroines? (There was Anne of Green Gables, of course, but in my childish mind she was eternal, not historical, just like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.) Though in later years I took some detours into American history (via Gone with the Wind, mostly) and occasionally into French or Russian, it was British history that had caught and held my imagination, and it really never occurred to me that I was missing anything by not exploring the history of my own country. That was a failure of patriotism as well as of curiosity, I suppose–but then I’ve never been much moved (in fact, I’m usually annoyed) by pressure to be more nationalistic, especially culturally (and Canadians actually get quite a lot of that kind of pressure, what with the incessant feeling of being encroached upon or drowned out by our noisy neighbours to the south).

Anyway, I remember various class trips to the Museum of Vancouver or the B. C. Provincial Museum, and to Fort Langley (where we’d get the obligatory square nail souvenirs) and I think at some point we made dioramas of scenes from Vancouver’s early years, but none of this competed with the thrilling stories of Lady Jane Grey or Eleanor of Aquitaine or Good Queen Bess. That was the good historical stuff! Later, as a history major in university, I stuck to Britain and America for my coursework, along with the intellectual history and historiography that were my main interests–there must not have been a Canadian history requirement, and of course it didn’t occur to me to take any Canadian history voluntarily!

Well, better late than never, right? I thoroughly enjoyed Halifax: Warden of the North, which I bought in the gift shop at the Halifax Citadel after touring the fort for the first time in my almost 17 years living here. I figured it was time I stopped moping quite so much about not living in Vancouver and tried to learn to love the east coast–and you know, the ironic thing is, Halifax actually has a lot more to offer a British history buff than Vancouver does, because so much of its early history actually is British history–obvious, I know, but reading Warden of the North finally made that sink in. From the earliest days of French and British competition for control over the area, through the drama of the War of 1812 to the nearby chaos of the American Civil War and the heyday of Victorianism–Halifax was a British outpost, for better or for worse, and right in the thick of things, too. Why, the British force that captured Washington and burned the White House was sent from the naval base in Halifax!

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May Day!

It’s a spectacular May day here in Halifax, perfect for the Bluenose Marathon (no, I didn’t participate, but we cheered on a lot of the runners and walkers as they came down our street towards the 38K marker). It’s supposed to be nice again tomorrow, which is lovely as this is the Victoria Day long weekend so we can all enjoy the sunshine. Winters in Halifax, though not as cold or as snowy as winters in many other parts of Canada, are plenty long and dreary, and for someone raised on the more temperate west coast, they can be hard to take. Harder still is the late arrival of spring. As of today, though, there’s no doubt that spring has sprung here, and I have a few photos to prove it from a beautiful walk Maddie and I took in the Public Gardens, my favorite spot in the city (as documented in some detail in this earlier post). I am thinking lots of serious thoughts about Madame Bovary for my next post, and I have also begun a little construction work on the “Middlemarch for Book Clubs” I so boldly promised in my previous post, about which more later too, but for now, here are a few pictures of beautiful trees and flowers. Grim thoughts of adultery and arsenic can wait!





(The photos open up bigger if you click on them.)

Victorian Halifax

I complain a lot about living in Halifax, but when spring finally arrives out here, the city has some redeeming features. This bright, beautiful morning, I enjoyed one of my favourite Halifax things: a trip to the city’s Victorian Public Gardens.

First opened in 1867, the Public Gardens feature the most spectacular rhododendrons I’ve ever seen, as well as formal flowerbeds, a gazebo (with band concerts on Sunday afternoons), a large duck pond (with abundant ducks) and all manner of fountains and statues. It’s a green oasis in the middle of downtown: you can barely hear the hum of traffic, and as you stroll the well-kept walkways (no dogs, no joggers, and no bicycles allowed!), you can easily feel as if you have stepped back into a Victorian fantasyland.

There’s a Boer War memorial fountain, and a fountain commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Even the swans are named ‘Horatio’ and ‘Nelson.’

Boer War Memorial
Diamond Jubilee Fountain
Horatio (or Nelson)

When Hurricane Juan struck Halifax in 2003, the Public Gardens were hit hard (though not with quite the devastating results seen at nearby Point Pleasant Park, which lost an estimated 70% of its trees). Since then, the Gardens have been beautifully restored. Here are a couple more pictures from today’s trip, including a shot of the bust of Walter Scott that used to be right outside the front gates (during the restoration, it was relocated to just across the street, near the statue of Robbie Burns–we’re not called New Scotland for nothing).

Sir Walter Scott
Robbie Burns

Massive Rhododendrons

Victorian Gazebo

Excellent Companion
with sassy new haircut