#31 Amber McMillan learns the ropes

The Woods: A Year on Protection Island
by Amber McMillan

Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2016
$19.95  /  9780889713291

Reviewed by Howard Macdonald Stewart

First published October 26, 2016

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Amber McMillan is a published poet who now lives, happily I hope, on the Sunshine Coast. With The Woods: A Year on Protection Island she has written a highly personal account of her year on Protection Island, located in Nanaimo Harbour.

McMillan and her husband fled an unhappy arrangement in Toronto and were hoping for better on this coast, only to find that Protection Island and many of its inhabitants failed to meet their expectations. She was previously a graduate student in B.C.

One has to admit that Protection Island neighbours scuttling your boat because it’s moored in the wrong place is an excessive reaction to the inevitable transgressions of newcomers, but then, whoever heard of islanders who depend on a dock that goes half dry at low tide?

It’s not clear exactly what the newcomers might have been expecting from a tiny island that is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a full-fledged island in the Strait, like say Gabriola or Lasqueti, with its own relatively independent community of aging refugees, artists, writers, handymen, dope growers, and other knowledge workers. Nor is Protection Island like the rest of suburban Nanaimo.

Boats at the Community Dock at Mud Bay, Protection Island, Nanaimo.  Amber McMillan photo
Amber McMillan

Unless you are a mariner putting into Nanaimo Harbour, the island’s name is misleading. Protection Island offered the poet and her family precious little protection–or comfort. Their boat didn’t work very well. The private ferry service was expensive and unreliable. There was much rain from October to April. Many of the neighbours were nosy or noisy, rude, or weird. And there were skeletons in some closets.

Ho-hum.

What was she expecting? A quaint offshoot of a gentrified town like Victoria? Or perhaps something like Sooke or Brentwood Bay? I don’t remember Nanaimo ever being touched by that sort of south-island gentility. The mall culture that spread north towards Parksville like a toxic bloom in the latter part of the last century strived to recreate Nanaimo in the anodyne mould of post Second World War American suburbia.

But the middle of town — which is, after all, what Protection Island connects with – is a rougher ‘hood. I remember Nanaimo’s older residential neighbourhoods as places where children seemed to be perpetually throttling one another on the front lawn of the family bungalow.

It’s predictable, I suppose, that an old fart on Denman Island finds that the story of a young Toronto poet’s unhappy year on a suburban island off downtown Nanaimo runs a bit thin at times. Through much of it I couldn’t dispel those haunting, whiny lyrics from Jimmy Morrison: “People are strange, when you’re a stranger.”

Amber McMillan

Amber McMillan’s description makes it clear that Protection Island is probably a better place to visit than to live. Like Peter Mayle’s rather sunnier year in Provence, her year on Protection Island is clearly told for a distant audience. “The Woods,” indeed! It will be of interest to distant city folk and perhaps to more local readers with the patience needed to troll through the minutiae of other people’s Facebook postings.

If you’re living in Toronto and thinking of moving to this coast, Amber McMillan’s book will be a valuable companion, a reminder to do a bit of research before relocating. But if you’re looking for explorations of contemporary island cultures on the inland sea, there are some fine alternatives. Try Grant Buday’s Stranger on a Strange Island, or Douglas Hamilton and Darlene Olesko’s Accidental Eden: Hippie Days on Lasqueti Island.

Amber McMillan’s The Woods reveals at least as much about the author as the place — and begs the question of what the locals thought of their year with the author?

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References:

Hamilton, Douglas and Darlene Olesko. 2014. Accidental Eden: Hippie Days on Lasqueti Island. Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press.

Buday, Grant. 2011. Stranger on a Strange Island: From Main Street to Mayne Island. Vancouver and Point Roberts: New Star Books.

Mayle, Peter. 1989. A Year in Provence. London: Pan Books.

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Howard Macdonald Stewart

Howard Macdonald Stewart is an historical geographer and international consultant who writes from Denman Island where he has lived, off and on, for more than thirty years. He has visited more than seventy countries since the 1970s. Now intensely allergic to airplanes, he has contributed many book reviews to BC Studies and, with this review, promises to do the same for The Ormsby Review. His forthcoming book on five parallel histories of the Strait of Georgia / North Salish Sea is scheduled for publication by Harbour Publishing in 2017. It will be based on his doctoral research in the Geography Department at UBC. An insider’s view of his four decades on the road, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker, is also a work in progress.

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