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#31 People are strange

October 26th, 2016

REVIEW: The Woods: A Year on Protection Island.

By Amber McMillan.

Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2016. $19.95  978-0-88971-329-1

Reviewed by Howard Macdonald Stewart, Denman Island


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


Amber McMillan

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, handy men, dope growers, and other knowledge workers. Nor is Protection Island like the rest of suburban Nanaimo.

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 end 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 World War Two American suburbia.

mcmillan-amber-book-jacketBut 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’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.

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?


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.



Howard 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.



According to the promotional department of the book’s publisher, The Woods: A Year on Protection Island has been selling well in Nanaimo at various retail outlets, as well as nearly 30 holds at the Vancouver Island Regional Library system. The book purportedly debunks myths and legends about Protection Island, mainly that it was ever called Douglas Island for example. It has been excerpted in Toronto-based Walrus magazine:

LINK TO WALRUS PIECE: http://thewalrus.ca/our-year-on-protection/

The Ormsby Review. More Reviews. More Often. More Readers.

8 Responses to “#31 People are strange”

  1. Michael S says:

    Wait, ultra-demanding downtown Toronto people hate Protection Island? Sign me up!

  2. Amy says:

    I agree with elements of this review, and disagree with others. I would like to point out that we do not completely rely on a dock that runs dry on a low tide. In addition to our wonderful community dock at Mud Bay, which does lose a few slips for an hour or two in the lowest tides of midsummer, we have many private dock options for those who prefer. In addition, our ferry service runs hourly from 7:00 am till 10:00pm-midnight (depending on day and season), as well as shuttling during the busier peaks. Having both visited, and now lived here (going on 11 years), I argue that living here has been much better for my family and I.

  3. Evie says:

    It’s not a review of an area, it is a book, an account. Being more complex than a travel review. And your comment seems rather a review of a review of a book you haven’t cracked.

    I think the actual review is lacking in facts and heavy on assumptions. McMillan, to my knowledge, spent many years on the coast and didn’t arrive as a doe eyed Torontonian looking for ‘protection’ as your review suggests. Fact checking and worthy critique are always your friends though explaining away a book with glib claims and personal biases is much easier, I imagine.

  4. Thora Howell says:

    The review by the historical geographer and international consultant Howard MacDonald Stewart leaves much to be desired.

    1. Protection Island is called Douglas Island it is on the deed to our home as well as Protection Island. So much for accurate historical geography.

    2.It would be so helpful if “so called” reviewers actually knew something about the place they are reviewing. In fact, we do have aging refugees, artists, writers, handy men, house builders, knowledge workers and some of the best musicians in Canada. –think David Essig, Paul Gogo, John Gogo, Rick Scott. We have a community hall, a community garden and a museum and some amazing young families. What a shame the reviewer and author failed to check with the Museum and Archives. If you care to do so please contact Vhennell@island.net to reach Rick Scott curator or BNeilld@telus.net–President of the Protection Island Cultural Historical Museum. They are available by email and the Museum and Archives are open

    3. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that we have unreliable ferry service. We have lived here for 26 years and the only time the ferry is down is because of high winds. No ferry in the province can match the Dinghy Dock service.
    Most disturbing to me is that an academic would not take the time to check out facts.
    He would do well to read the new biography of Jane Jacobs by Kanigel. Jane didn’t have
    a lot of time for the biases of academics. I can see why.

    4.I would suggest that it is questionable to have a review published by a person whose upcoming book will be published in the spring by the publisher’s father.

    5. Finally contrary to the reviewer opinion, Protection Island is a splendid place to
    live. I do agree with him that there are better books to read should people wish to explore island living.

    • Amy says:

      I also inherited my dad’s charts of the area, some dating back to the late 50’s. The older ones also have Douglas Isl. marked.

    • Howard Stewart says:

      For the record, I’m NOT an academic so there must be other explanations for any deficiencies in my review. Suggest PI / DI ought to stage a plebiscite about reverting to its First Nations name.

      A friend who lives on PI part time has also taken exception to the author’s characterisation of the place. Budget’s being what they are these days, I wasn’t able to make a field trip and don’t believe most of what I read on-line. I think there may be some confusion though between my recounting of the author’s sometimes jaundiced views of PI and my own agnostic views. The whole event has tweaked our interest enough that MJ and I (in disguise) will be sure to visit when the rain stops.

      I find your boasting about the quality of the PI ferry service to be insensitive hubris, distinctly lacking in sensitivity towards Denman Islanders who, though ten times more numerous, are left at the capricious mercy of the “Drag Queen”.

  5. Erin Richter says:

    Having been both a newcomer and now a resident of 5 years, I thank you for your candid review. It takes time to find your ‘fit’ in any small community and whether on a small island or in a small rural town.
    And, like most small communities, we protect our own in times of need and cheer each others successes.
    I love living here.

    Thanks for your review. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  6. Jim MacQuarrie says:

    As a relative neophyte on Protection Island, I can only shake my head at the characterization the author presents in this book. It’s purportedly non-fiction. But after two years and three winters here, I haven’t see any of the “tight-lipped passive aggressiveness” the author describes. The “meddling community” is, in my experience, more accurately described as a caring one. In my short time here, there have been many examples of generosity, small and large. I don’t quarrel with Ms McMillan’s right to journal her own experience, though sharing the personal details of some of our more vulnerable citizens seems exploitive, especially given the context she paints. This island is not for everyone. But it is a caring and connected community. Already, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. And I invite Mr. Macdonald Stewart to come visit.

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