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The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga

By Norma Macmillan

Review By K. Watt

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 171 Autumn 2011  | p. 137-138

What do Casper the Friendly Ghost , the co-founder of Vancouver’s Totem Theatre, Jeopardy’s Shakespeare lady, the former editor of Vancouver ’s Georgia Straight newspaper, and the nasty Nellie Oleson of television’s Little House on the Prairie series have to do with BC history and its emerging fiction? 

Quite a bit, as it turns out, for each of these players from popular culture and Vancouver’s arts scene had a role in bringing Norma Macmillan’s historical novel, The Maquinna Line, to print. Born in Vancouver in 1921, playwright and actress Macmillan was best known for her voice talents – breathing life into Casper in The New Casper Cartoon Show of the early 1960s and into Pokey’s steadfast, green sidekick Gumby in the late 1960s animated show of the same name acting, and raising her family with husband Thor Arngrim in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles. From their meeting at work in Vancouver’s Totem Theatre in the 1950s, they travelled together the journey that comprised their long and eclectic professional lives. 

In the early 1970s, Macmillan began to write what her daughter Alison Arngrim (best known for her portrayal of the shopkeeper’s daughter, Nellie, in the TV dramatization of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels) called, “the Canadian version of Roots” (vii). This lusty family saga begins in Friendly Cove in 1778 and performs a riff on BC history up to the Second World War as it follows a clutch of established Victoria families anchored together by tendrils of attachment to two female descendants of fabled Mowachaht chief Maquinna of Yuquot. Cinematic in scope, The Maquinna Line takes the polite world of Victoria and turns it on its side, showing the underbelly of British Columbia’s politest city, its institutionalized racism, and its selfishness. 

Norma Macmillan died in Vancouver in 2001. After her death, Thor Arngrim pulled her voluminous manuscript out of their closet and set to work to get it published, conscripting Vancouver journalist and teacher Charles Campbell (former editor of the Georgia Straight) and Barbara-Anne Eddy (five-time Jeopardy champion) to get it typed and revised for publication. This multi-handed journey to press explains some of the inconsistencies between the promise of the novel and its final form. Created through a rigorous editing process that reduced Macmillan’s original manuscript by half, this novel attempts a great deal as it seeks to write a First Nations story on and over British Columbia’s founding mythologies of white settlement, exposing its pretentious “Englishness” as a violent sham. 

Maquinna’s heirs, Elaine and her daughter Sahndra, are equated with the trickster raven, their presence unsettling but ultimately enriching the life of the staid Julia Godolphin and the families that ripple around her. In Macmillan’s hands, their story is as fascinating as it is repellant: as characters, they are the wanted, the looked upon never the lookers. They are presented as lithe, animalistic representatives of their race, aware of their beauty, driven by their desires and an inchoate something handed down through their genes. But they remain one-dimensional, unfinished, their fate as characters mirroring the genesis of the novel. 

Macmillan approaches the accomplishments of BC writers Jack Hodgins and Ethel Wilson in her conception of place and time. Yet because her sure hand falters stylistically, the full evocation she sought is not realized, and it is the promise of plot that keeps The Maquinna Line afloat, even, at times, unputdownable. Macmillan’s sombre representation of coastal British Columbia nevertheless yields a variety of enlightening returns as metaphorical and real violence makes possible surprisingly tender turns of forgiveness, acts of atonement that embrace a new kind of future for British Columbia. 


The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga by Norma Macmillan

Foreword by Alison Arngrim; Afterword by Charles Campbell

Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2010. 288 pp.  $19.95 paper