[The narrator is working in a mining camp with his brothers and other family members]
He took his fiddle and went outside and sat on one of the benches. He was, as Calum said, “a wonderful player” and my brothers brought out their own fiddle and took turns playing with him. And then out of the bunkhouses of the French Canadians came their leader, big Fern Picard, with some of his men. They watched us for a moment from a distance, and then went inside and returned with their own fiddles and their spoons. Two of them brought harmonicas and one of them a button accordion. They sat on the benches beside us, which we had never seen them do before, and joined in the music….
The music dipped and soared and the leather-soled shoes snapped against the reverberating wood. Sometimes a fiddler would announce the name of a tune and the others would nod in recognition… at other times the titles seemed lost or perhaps never known, although the tunes themselves would be recognizable after the first few bars.
observations: Alistair MacLeod, to my mind Canada’s finest writer, died this week.
Like most avid readers, I’m always saying a book is in my top 10, and thinking that probably I have assigned at least 30 books to that category. But this one truly is top 10: a beautiful, astonishing, tremendously touching and completely original novel about a Canadian family and the different fates awaiting the different members, about emigration and immigration, about honour and the demands of family, about humanity and love. The happy scene above – and the good relations between the French-Canadian workers and those of Scottish descent – will not last. You have to read the book to find out what the title means: it’s a quotation from the 18th century General Wolfe of Quebec.
The narrator Alexander is for a time the youngest of the family, the gille beag ruadh, the little red boy. His ancestors, MacDonalds, came to Cape Breton from Scotland long ago, but the family ties hold strong, and the red hair goes down the generations. He becomes a man of substance: his older brothers have very different lives. The relationships amongst the various people, for example the two grandfathers, are beautifully drawn, and so is the sadness and waste of Calum’s life.
I have read the book several times. My eyes start to mist over every time I get to the point where the grandmother says:
“The gille beag ruadh is thousands of miles from here. Yet I would know him if I met him anywhere in this whole wide world. He will always have a piece of my heart.”
Then Alexander repeats the key phrase of the book: ‘All of us are better when we’re loved.’
And there are still ten pages to go, ten pages of perfect resolution: and you are emotionally wrenched while at the same time full of admiration for the writing.
It is a perfect book.
The picture, from Canada’s Library and Archives, shows ‘Lumbermen of Quebec playing a violin and using sticks to make music in their lumber camp. Located in isolated areas, lumber camps must be self-contained units with sleeping accommodation, food supplies and home-made entertainment’ – very similar to the mining camp in the book.