1. Why might the author have chosen the narrator Alexander to be
an orthodontist by profession? Is his choice of profession
connected in some way to Calum''s infected tooth episode during
their boyhood [p79]? What is Alexander''s attitude towards his own
profession? Is he proud or ashamed? He writes that he hopes to make
his patients more beautiful than they were before [p62] or, as his
grandma might say, he is "in the business of ''improving on God'' "
[p103]. How does Alexander''s profession reflect a kind of attempt
to find an explanation for his past or to escape from it?
2. When Alexander first arrives at Calum''s apartment, Calum
accuses him of being there because of their grandma''s dictum:
"Always look after your own blood" [p14]. Does Alexander in fact
visit Calum out of obligation? Guilt? What is his relationship with
his older brother? Is either one the man who has "everything or
nothing" [p71]? How would you describe the author''s treatment of
the other two surviving brothers, and how does it affect the
reader''s understanding of Alexander''s relationship with his
3. Alexander thinks it is not important which liquor he buys for
his dying alcoholic brother; rather he reflects, "What is important
is that I will return" [p170]. Is Alexander''s trip to his
brother''s apartment that afternoon more than just a physical
experience? Is it in any way a spiritual homecoming?
4. From an early age, when femininity distinguishes her from the
older brothers [p74], Alexander''s sister''s role in the narrative
is unique. Why does Alexander choose to tell us about his family
and his Scottish heritage through his twin sister''s personal
recollections of their family life and her revealing trip back to
Scotland? How would you characterize his relationship with his
sister? What is the significance of the fact that the author refers
to Alexander''s sister by her given name, Catherine, only once
[p109], and that occurrence appears not directly from Alexander,
but in a letter from their uncle and aunt?
5. In the beginning, the narrator explains, "This is a story of
lives which turned out differently than was intended" [p57]. Is it
really a matter of lives turning out differently than intended, or
are the MacDonald children''s lives a result of the choices they
have made? Calum looks at his parents'' death this way: "If I had
been with them I might have saved them" [p209]. But Alexander has a
different perspective: "If you had been with them you would have
gone down too" [p209]. Could Calum''s life have turned out
differently if he had felt lucky, instead of guilty? Are
Alexander''s and Calum''s lives impacted more by their own personal
past or by their entire family''s legacy?
6. Does the saying on the Toronto woman''s T-shirt - "Living in
the past is not living up to our potential" [p60] - mirror the
message of the novel? How does the past hold back the MacDonald
7. At the end of the novel, Grandma describes Grandpa and their
"other grandfather" as a balance to each other [p264]. How would
you describe the relationship between the grandfathers? Is it like
any of the other relationships among family members in the clan?
How are the grandfathers'' different feelings about their past and
their views of history indicative of their different
8. As related in the novel, General Wolfe describes the members
of the MacDonald clan who fought under his command at Quebec by
writing in a letter, "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a
rough country, and no great mischief if they fall" [p237].
According to historians, Wolfe was referring to the two motives for
recruiting the Highlanders to the British Army for King George in
the Seven Years'' War: their stamina as well as the possibility of
removing them as a threat to the monarchy. Alexander''s grandfather
characterized Wolfe''s description as a "cynical comment" [p109],
and his sister likens the MacDonald clan to a "great sports team
which may have lost faith in its management or its coach, but are
out there anyway in the bloodied mud and the smoke, giving their
hearts and their sinew not for ''management'' but for the shared
history of one another" [pp. 237-8]. Is Wolfe''s description of the
MacDonalds a source of pride or a burden to the family? What is the
significance of the author''s allusion to Wolfe''s quote for the
title of the novel?
9. Why do the family members speak Gaelic to each other more and
more as they get older?
10. What role does Alexander play in the Fern Picard incident?
How is he both an active participant and an outside observer? In
what other places in the novel is he both participant and
11. Does Alexander judge Calum''s behaviour? Fern Picard''s?
Alexander MacDonald''s from San Francisco? The narrator comments
that sending the stolen money back to Fern Picard is "the fitting
thing to do" [p261]. Is that an appropriate choice of words under
the circumstances? Is there a presence of morality in the novel?
Does Alexander ever give the reader an idea of what he thinks is
right and wrong?
12. How would you describe the concept of time in the novel? How
do the repeated incidents in which clann Chalum Ruaidh
members recognize each other affect the concept of time? Is time
linear, or, as in the darkness of the mines, does time seem "to
compress and expand almost simultaneously" [p199]?
13. When Alexander''s brother returns to Scotland, in a matter
of minutes a fellow clan member spots him and invites him to be his
business partner, saying, "If only the ships had come from France"
[p263]. The family members greet each other with Robert the
Bruce''s quote from 1314, "My hope is constant in thee, Clan
Donald" [pp 88, 11, 202]. Are these incidents an example of how the
family continues to stick together despite their hardships and
differences? Does it sometimes seem as if the family''s reliving of
their defeat borders on an absurd, almost existentialist
14. What is the significance of the author''s descriptions of
the migrant workers in Ontario and of the Zulu and Masai tribes in
Africa? Are all of these races displaced peoples - like clann
Chalum Ruaidh? How are they different? Is the description of
Alexander''s wife''s brief family history similar or different from
these other people''s [p274]? What is the significance of the point
in the narrative at which the author chooses to place these
15. What is the author''s attitude towards the miners? How are
the miners'' lives similar to those of the migrant workers?
16. Echoing like refrains throughout the novel are the mottoes
"We are all better when we''re loved" and "Stick with your blood."
How are these two concepts manifest in Alexander''s family? What
relationships in the tale are governed by the former credo and
which ones by the latter?
17. What is the point of Alexander MacDonald having stolen the
wallet that precipitated Calum''s attack on Fern, resulting in his
ultimate conviction for second-degree murder? Do the MacDonalds
simultaneously survive and perish because they "stick with their
18. The author frequently uses compound metaphors, such as the
many metaphors for change on page 72. At what other points in the
narrative does the author use this style of compounding metaphors?
How does his use of both compound and recurrent metaphors as well
as other stylistic devices, such as repetition, reinforce the
themes of the novel? How does the author use Gaelic language and
music to set the style and tone of the novel? In what ways does the
novel itself mimic a Gaelic song?
19. Why do the men of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, in
particular Calum, have such strong relationships with animals? What
does it say about their characters? How do their relationships with
animals compare to their relationships with other men? The author
writes of the clann Chalum Ruaidh dogs, "It was in those dogs to
care too much and to try too hard" [p57]. Does this describe the
dogs or their masters?
20. Alexander explains, "The ''lamp of the poor'' is hardly
visible in urban southwestern Ontario, although there are many poor
who move disjointedly beneath it. And the stars are seldom clearly
seen above the pollution of prosperity" [p192]. What is the
narrator''s attitude towards affluence - his own and that of
21. The author writes, "In the waters near Glencoe perhaps the
mythical ''king of the herring'' still swims. If he exists, perhaps
he is as complicated as many other leaders. He is regarded as a
friend to some, but those who follow him may do so at their peril.
In any case there are no MacDonalds who wait for him and his
bounty, and perhaps without their beliefs he is just another fish,
who should be careful where he swims" [p274]. How does this view of
the clan simultaneously capture Grandpa''s and Grandfather''s
different views of their common history? What is more crippling to
Alexander''s family: the lack of beliefs or the fear of not having
Discussion questions provided courtesy of Vintage Books, a division
of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.