“Canadian roots” captures island history

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April 25, 2014

The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga

By Norma MacMillan

Touchwood Editions

288 pp., $19.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

One wouldn’t expect Caspar the Friendly Ghost to have anything in common with Canadian literary fiction, but he does.  Norma Macmillan is the woman who voiced Caspar and who, with her posthumously published novel The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga, makes her mark in Canadian fiction.  Already recognized in Vancouver’s Starwalk for her work in Canadian theatre, Macmillan was an accomplished actress as well as a playwright.  The Maquinna Line is a generational tale that the author worked on for decades before her death; it was discovered in a closet by her husband and revived with the help of a family friend.

The Maquinna Line opens in 1778 with the meeting between Captain James Cook and Moachat chieftain Maquinna on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.  In a few brief pages, Macmillan captures this meeting between equals that would lead to the subjugation of B.C.’s Aboriginal peoples.  Maquinna helps Cook refurbish his boat and looks forward to more becoming wealthy by trade with the white men, but is watched by Raven, who seems to have “some knowledge of the future that was different from his.”

We then skip ahead to Victoria in 1910 and our first meeting with Julia Godolphin at a garden party.  I found these next chapters a bit hard to read, as we skipped between characters—all of whom were interesting, but I wasn’t yet connected with any.  Soon the story settles upon Julia’s brother Stanley, a shy, confused young boy who commits an unforgiveable crime and is banished from Victoria.  Then we meet Sveinn Arnason, the Icelandic immigrant who made his fortune in the Comox Valley and gives Stanley a place to work.

The story meanders forward, touching upon the lives of various families in Victoria until 1947. Macmillan’s theatre background is evident in the way that, with just a few quick sentences, she brings a character alive on the page.  Her familiarity with Vancouver Island and its history was also evident.  As a recent “immigrant” to Victoria myself, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about places I’ve visited or seen, such as the Empress Hotel, Ross Cemetery and St. Ann’s School.

In the foreword, actress and author Alison Arngrim talks about watching her mother go away to write the book and says of reading the manuscript, “My mother’s book … was not simple, and it was not, to put it mildly, a lighthearted satirical romp as I imagined her plays to be.  It was sometimes darkly comic, but often simply dark.  To be honest, I found sections of it downright disturbing.”  Macmillan wasn’t afraid to tackle sexual scandals, mental illness, disability, or death in her novel, yet there is also beauty in each relationship, in the twists and turns of the story, in the way that each family faces their struggles.

Arngrim calls her mother’s novel the “Canadian Roots” and indeed Macmillan does take us on a tour of Vancouver Island through several generations of its early families. She captures the character of the island and its varied inhabitants.  This novel is sure to delight Island-dweller as well as those who’ve never seen it.

Bonnie Way blogs as The Koala Bear Writer.  She has three daughters and is completing her BA in Writing at the University of Victoria while working on a novel.




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