Amber McMillan’s memoir tells the story of the author’s escape from Toronto to B.C. Tired of city living, McMillan and her husband set their sights on Protection Island, in Nanaimo Harbour. The couple is drawn by its promise of a stress-free existence and a complete lack of cars. In summer, the small island’s population peaks at approximately 300, yet despite its remoteness, it is a mere 10-minute boat ride from urban amenities.
The book’s title leads readers to expect a celebration of coastal beauty and wilderness adventures, but such expectations will be disappointed. McMillan includes very little description of natural settings or outdoor activities. Instead, The Woods is about navigating small-town life as an outsider.
McMillan and her husband, along with their kindergarten-aged daughter, relocate without researching the island’s employment opportunities, cost of living, or community. Not surprisingly, the reality falls short of their fantasy. Obtaining work proves difficult and the cost of ferry transportation eats up most of their meagre salaries. Instead of a life of easeful bliss, they find themselves overwhelmed by the stress of never-ending job hunts, continual boat troubles, a disconcerting lack of anonymity, and the impossibility of crossing the divide from outsider to islander.
Even in the details of island history, McMillan works to deromanticize the small community. She debunks the myth that the island was originally called Douglas Island, extrapolating the colonial underpinnings of this false history. She shares stories of various murders that have occurred on the island, including a particularly gruesome description of severed feet. As she and her family prepare to decamp for the Sunshine Coast, news breaks that a man has opened fire at a Nanaimo sawmill, killing two. Residents insist that such things never happen in Nanaimo, which does help to underscore McMillan’s fixation on the wilful blindness its inhabitants seem to entertain.
Ultimately, The Woods is about McMillan’s failed attempt to find happiness and her realization that no geographical location can accommodate her spiritual quest. Happiness must be found within. She concludes, appropriately, with her mother’s lesson: “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”