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“Canadian roots” captures island history

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.




5 Questions with Andrea Raine

Andrea Raine is a local Victoria author and University of Victoria alumna. She has participated in the Glenairley writing retreats led by Canadian writer Patrick Lane in Sooke, B.C. and has been attending the Planet Earth Poetry reading series since 1997. She published her first book of poetry, A Mother’s String, in 2005 through Ekstatis Editions and recently self-published her first novel, Turnstiles, through Inkwater Press. Recently, Nadia Grutter held an email conversation with Raine via email to discuss her writing experience.

1. First off, tell us a little about Turnstiles.

My novel, Turnstiles, is basically about three main characters who are struggling with inner demons, pushing the outside world away and yet, at the same time, wanting desperately to be a part of the bigger picture. They just need to come to terms with a few things first. Their chance (and relatively brief) meetings propel each of them in different directions, where they gain new perspectives on how to move forward. It is an empathetic and honest portrayal of human beings attempting to redefine themselves amidst the clash of idealism and societal expectations. It is a stirring, dramatic depiction of love, loss, impulse, and consequence.

2. Your first published work, A Mother’s String, is poetry. Turnstiles is fiction. Do you prefer writing in one genre over the other? How do they inform each other in the writing process?

I have been writing poetry longer than I’ve been writing novels. My poetic voice definitely influences my prose in how I paint a picture and play with language.

3. From what I understand, Turnstiles is self-published while A Mother’s String is not. How did the publishing processes differ?

A Mother’s String wasn’t necessarily self-published, but it was published through on demand by a small, local publisher Ekstasis Editions. I didn’t pay for the publishing and professional editing services, but I did need to pay for subsequent copies of my book at a discount price. It was entirely up to me to place my poetry book in bookstores on consignment, much like my novel Turnstiles. I published Turnstiles through a publishing package with Inkwater Press that included marketing assistance. So, my two publishing experiences are comparable.

4. Why did you chose to self-publish and would you do it again?

Initially, I tried to publish my novel, Turnstiles, through the traditional route by writing query letters and pitching to literary agencies. I received positive feedback, but there were other obstacles to landing a literary agent, i.e. my book didn’t fit their portfolio. I stumbled across Inkwater Press, an indie publisher, and was impressed with their mandate and services. Inkwater Press was eager to publish my first novel, and they have continued to be extremely helpful in marketing and setting up reading events. I am not opposed to self-publishing again because there is a large degree of freedom and control in the design concept. However, there is a price tag attached to self-publishing and for that reason I am going to first try traditional publishing again for my next book.

5. What advice would you give other authors looking to self-publish?

Self-publishing has its benefits, and is a good way to get your big toe into the book world. Still, authors who are self-publishing need to be savvy when it comes to marketing your book, keeping out-of-pocket costs down, and targeting an audience.

Cabaret: Alive and Well in Victoria


Book by Joe Masteroff; music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Roger Carr

Langham Court Theatre


January 15-February 1

 Reviewed by Joy Fisher

 Some plays grow stale over time while others retain their vitality, sparkling with relevance decades after their first production. Cabaret falls into the latter category.

Opening on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret was one of two plays inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, based on the author’s life in Berlin between 1930 and 1933. The other play, I Am a Camera, written by John Van Druten, preceded Cabaret by 15 years, and, while I Am a Camera was not without critical acclaim, its success was severely curtailed by the acerbic commentary of New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr. Kerr summed up his opinion with these words: “Me no Leica.” The play closed after 214 performances.

The original production of Cabaret, on the other hand, ran 1,165 performances. Furthermore, Cabaret has been revived every decade since, and its 1998 Broadway revival ran 2,377 performances, becoming the third longest-running revival in Broadway musical theatre history.

Why the difference? Kerr once wrote a book called How Not to Write a Play in which he asserted that plays will always be more successful if they are highly entertaining. He argued that entertainment can be at once enjoyable and artistically sophisticated.

The current Langham Court production, based on the 1998 Broadway revival, is both. While acknowledging the gay theme with a kiss between the main character, Cliff Bradshaw, played by Griffin Lea, and one of the Kit Kat nightclub’s “boys,” director Carr has chosen to emphasize the political theme inherent in the years of Hitler’s rise to power. It was an astute choice, for, while stories of gay history are quite rightly in vogue in these days of gay liberation, the theme of political oppression whispers daily in the ears of all of us.

In this charged atmosphere, the main story of the ill-fated romance between Cliff and Sally Bowles, played by Chelsea Kutyn, pales in comparison with that between Fraulein Schneider, touchingly acted by Susie Mullen, and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schulz, played, heart in hand, by Alf Small. Cliff and Sally, after all, are expatriates, free to leave whenever they want, while Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schulz have no such free choice: they must act out their doomed affair in the land of their birth.

The starkness of their situation is highlighted by the song and dance number “If You Could See Her,” in which the Emcee of the Kit-Kat Club, admirably played by Kyle Kushner, dances with a partner in a gorilla suit pleading for the right to love the person of his choice.  “If you could see her as I do,” he sings, “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

Kushner is in large part the reason this shocking narrative is entertaining. Projecting a guileless exterior, he nevertheless effectively conveys an inner knowledge of the evil of the world. When, at the end of the play, he rips away his cabaret costume to reveal himself in the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner, only the audience is startled.

It’s not surprising that the entire run of this production of Cabaret is sold old. If you are unable to slip into one of the remaining performances by hanging around the lobby begging, as I did with puppy dog eyes, for an unclaimed ticket, don’t despair. Another Broadway revival is scheduled for 2014.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.