When Amber McMillan published her non-fiction book The Woods: A Year on Protection Island (Nightwood Editions, 2016) there was a bit of controversy. Let’s just say the inhabitants of Nanaimo’s tiny island suburb didn’t agree with the author’s depiction of their home. Quill & Quire notes that at first glance the book might appear to be “a celebration of coastal beauty and wilderness adventures, but such expectations will be disappointed [as] McMillan includes very little description of natural settings or outdoor activities. Instead, The Woods is about navigating small-town life as an outsider.” Another review compared the book to the 1987 cult classic Withnail & I, where the main characters “go on holiday by mistake” only to confront disaster upon disaster.
In the years that followed The Woods, McMillan began to write a three-act play satirizing to some extent, the little-thought-of controversies a book might bring to unsuspecting members of a fictionalized book club in a small, northern town. This collection of play-stories appears throughout McMillan’s short fiction collection The Running Trees (Goose Lane, 2021) and The Miramichi Reader is pleased to present to you the second of three installments in this exclusive excerpt. Part I can be found here.
Conversation #214: The Book Club, Act II
Two new characters have been added to ACT TWO:
CAROL. 70, retired, a staple in the community. She dresses in roomy white and off-white clothing. She has a soft, pleasant way of speaking and moves her body gracefully.
MOIRA. 58, an out-of-work geneticist who has taken up the “hippy lifestyle” and moved to the small community only a few years previously. Her clothing is multicoloured and her hair is adorned with a streak of blue in the bangs.
We open again to the library from ACT ONE except the chairs that formed a semicircle are now stacked and off to the side. The books left at last week’s book club meeting remain in a pile by the coffee table, untouched.
The door is heard opening. The dark stage illuminates as Mrs. Marshall flicks on the switch near the door. She crosses the stage and pulls down a chair from the top of the stacked pile and places it in the centre of the stage. She sits down on the chair and unties her boots, one at a time, and places them under her chair in a considered, orderly fashion. She removes the small purse from her shoulder and hooks it over the back of the chair. She crosses the stage toward the coffee station. She fills the kettle with fresh water and arranges the coffee mugs on the table so each handle is facing outward in a uniform way. She is humming an indiscernible tune. Just as she finishes arranging things, the door opens and the Professor and Dixie enter.
PROFESSOR. Afternoon, Mrs. Marshall! Is the kettle on?
MRS. MARSHALL. It is. Mrs. Marshall points to the kettle.
DIXIE. Afternoon, Mrs. Marshall. Thank you for getting started.
Dixie is again carrying several bags teeming with groceries, making a spectacle of effort with every step.
DIXIE. I’ll just put these down somewhere so I can help.
MRS. MARSHALL. Don’t put yourself out.
PROFESSOR. Shit — you know, I meant to bring that Korean tea I like today but I forgot it at home. I don’t suppose there’s any leftover in the tin?
MRS. MARSHALL. Have a look, but I doubt it. I think it might be time to replenish that stash of teas. Some of those bags are looking rather ratty.
The Professor crosses the stage and picks up the tin used for storing tea bags. He pulls out each tea bag and examines it in the light. He does not find his special Korean tea. Dixie has unhinged the bags from her arm and piled them up against the back wall.
DIXIE. I hope Belle remembers to bring back my copy of the book she borrowed last week. And I hope she managed to read it this time.
MRS. MARSHALL. Belle isn’t coming, so you’ll have to wait to get your book. There was a scheduling conflict.
PROFESSOR. Volleyball practice?
MRS. MARSHALL. Correct.
DIXIE. Oh, yes. She mentioned that.
Dixie begins scratching her left arm.
MRS. MARSHALL. Carol and Moira will be joining us today, however. Any minute now.
DIXIE. That’s one extra chair.
Dixie looks around the room with her hands on her hips, frowning, and occasionally reaching over to scratch a now red spot on her left arm. Mrs. Marshall joins Dixie and together they begin unstacking the chairs and arranging them in a semicircle.
DIXIE. I just hope Belle remembers to bring back my book next time. I don’t have an unlimited supply of books, you know. I’m not giving them away if that’s what she thinks.
The door opens and Carol enters. She leaves the door ajar behind her.
CAROL. Hello, all. Moira is just behind me. Carol gestures backwards with her arm, smiling.
MOIRA. Hello! I’m here as well!
CAROL. I told them you were right behind me.
MOIRA. Did you tell them I brought some banana bread? Banana and zucchini bread. I had an extra zucchini from the garden so I put it in.
MRS. MARSHALL. Thank you, Moira. Lovely.
Mrs. Marshall takes the bread from Moira’s hands and carries it to the coffee station.
CAROL. Yes, thank you. That sounds wonderful.
The Professor, holding a cup of tea, crosses the room to join the group standing around the door.
PROFESSOR. I’ve never heard of banana-zucchini bread.
DIXIE. Okay, well, time keeps on moving and will surely move right on past us if we don’t take a seat and begin.
Dixie scratches her arm again. Mrs. Marshall, Dixie, Carol, Moira and the Professor settle into the pre-arranged seats. Dixie picks up a handful of books from the pile and hands one to each person. The door opens again. Janet enters. She slams the door behind her.
JANET. I rushed over. I was just going over some of the details with the manager of the food bank in town. The holidays are coming and it’s important that all the arrangements are made. Christmas dinner, of course. Gifts, if possible.
Janet takes off her jacket and hangs it on the hook near the door.
MRS. MARSHALL. Hello, Janet.
The Professor nods in Janet’s direction and continues drinking his tea.
JANET. Hello. Oh, hello, Mrs. Marshall. And Moira is here as well.
Mrs. Marshall and Moira smile.
DIXIE. You don’t have a book.
JANET. Oh, right. I went to the bookstore as I said I would do, but they were out.
DIXIE. How odd. So it was sold out?
MRS. MARSHALL. Dixie, perhaps Janet can use one of your copies for today.
Dixie gets up from her chair in somewhat exaggerated strain and crosses the room. She picks up a book from the pile and brings it over to Janet, still standing near the door. Dixie is now scratching both arms as she walks back to her seat.
MRS. MARSHALL. Ah, there we are. Janet, please take a seat.
Mrs. Marshall gestures toward the empty chair.
DIXIE. And we can begin.
JANET. Thank you.
Janet crosses in front of all the seated guests and takes her seat. She opens the book arbitrarily and stares at the pages.
PROFESSOR. Hopefully everyone has read the book for book club today.
DIXIE. I’d like to begin by saying that I am particularly interested in your thoughts on the subject of “outsiders.” I think this is really a book about being an outsider — what do you all think? And some have said, I mean I’ve heard it said, that outsiders can be very clear-sighted judges of a situation. For no other reason than they are not otherwise invested in – in –
MRS. MARSHALL. Let’s say, invested in a particular narrative?
Janet snorts sarcastically.
DIXIE. Yes. Right. It’s possible that outsiders are able to maintain a distance perhaps necessary for — a — uh, what am I trying to say?
MRS. MARSHALL. A distance necessary to maintain a, perhaps, relatively unbiased approach. Is that what you mean to say?
Dixie smiles and looks down at the book in her lap.
CAROL. I suppose that’s possible.
MOIRA. Possible, but not in this case. In this case, that is not the case, is what I mean.
DIXIE. Moira, we all know why you’ve decided to join us today. And that’s okay, natural even, but why would you say that this is not the case in this case?
The Professor sits up straight in his chair and places his tea down on the floor. He opens his copy of The Many Faces of Withanu Lake and begins flipping through the pages. He is smiling as if telling himself a joke.
MOIRA. To be fair, Dixie, we all know why you chose this book for book club in the first place. Anyway, I don’t see why I’m not entitled to my opinion.
JANET. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, are they not?
MOIRA. Thank you, Janet. I agree.
DIXIE. I never said you couldn’t have your opinion.
MRS. MARSHALL. I can think of several examples of stories told from the point of view of an outsider. I think it can be an important and illuminating perspective to hear from.
The Professor crosses his legs and closes the book to redirect his attention to the conversation unfolding in the room.
PROFESSOR. In fact, Janet, I would have to disagree with your edict.
JANET. I beg your pardon?
PROFESSOR. Your statement that each person is entitled to his, her, or their opinion. I disagree.
JANET. You can’t disagree. It’s a fact. It’s a right.
PROFESSOR. No, it’s not a right nor is it a fact. And I disagree with you because I can think of many instances in which a person’s opinion is not an entitlement, but something more like a weapon. A weapon used against others.
JANET. Don’t be ridiculous.
PROFESSOR. Racism is an opinion, is it not? So is religion and political affiliation, and to an extent at least, so are our moral leanings, our senses of right and wrong.
JANET. That’s not what I meant.
PROFESSOR. So I disagree with your statement because it is a categorical mistake. Opinions are not rights. Opinions are ideas, vulnerable to persuasion and manipulation. They often come to us free of logic and are often difficult to defend against criticism. We are not entitled to these ideas of ours. Opinions are dangerous, though, and are responsible for many wars, abuses, indecencies. All in the name of our precious opinions. So, I disagree with your edict, as I said.
MRS. MARSHALL. I think we may be getting away from Dixie’s intended point.
DIXIE. My what?
MRS. MARSHALL. Your topic suggestion. About outsiders.
DIXIE. Oh, yes.
CAROL. I have an opinion about this book that I’d like to share.
MRS. MARSHALL. Thank you, Carol. Please go ahead.
CAROL. My opinion is that the character called “Carolina” is based on me.
PROFESSOR. I think that’s fair, yes.
CAROL. There are details about “Carolina” that are untrue. Errors in the details.
PROFESSOR. This is your opinion, of course.
CAROL. This is a fact.
JANET. Of course there are errors! There are errors all through this thing! Error upon error! Janet waves the book over her head as she speaks.
CAROL. In the book, here on page 78, it is written that “Carolina” — that’s me — invited the author — that’s Sarah — into her home and asked her to “take off her shoes.” You see?
PROFESSOR. See what?
CAROL. I have never asked a guest to take off her shoes at the door. I have bare floors, and shoes don’t bother me in the least. This is an inaccuracy within the book. Within this “non-fiction memoir.”
JANET. An inaccuracy among many inaccuracies.
MOIRA. It’s true, in the thirteen years I’ve known her, Carol has never asked me, or anyone in my presence, to take off shoes.
PROFESSOR. Well then, it’s settled.
CAROL. Professor, please don’t take a tone. I’m being quite serious.
PROFESSOR. Excuse me, but I think we ought to allow for some creative license, so to speak. Even within a memoir. Maybe especially so.
JANET. There’s creative license and then there’s plain nonsense.
CAROL. The publisher, as you can see, has classified this book as “non-fiction”; it’s here on the back cover. “Non-fiction,” it says. From what I know, non-fiction is a designation to mean “true to life,” “factual.” The opposite of fiction. Am I wrong?
PROFESSOR. No, you’re not wro—
JANET. This book is nothing but an act of revenge! The author has published it for no other reason than to stick it to me — to all of us!
DIXIE. Please don’t start yelling.
Dixie resumes scratching both her left and right arms, one after the other and back again.
MOIRA. I tend to agree with Janet.
DIXIE. Yes, well, no surprise there.
MOIRA. What’s that supposed to mean?
DIXIE. I’m not surprised that you’re dissatisfied with Sarah’s portrayal of you in her memoir.
MOIRA. Her portrayal of me? Her portrayal of a person she calls Moira is not a version of myself that I recognize, so okay, yes, I am dissatisfied if that character is meant to be me.
PROFESSOR. You know it’s meant to be you.
MOIRA. Well, that’s not why I’m here today.
CAROL. We are here today because it’s come to our attention that many of the members of our community are very . . . dissatisfied with this book for a variety of reasons. As you know, Moira’s character in the book is getting a divorce from her husband who is described as being “mentally ill” and a “heavy drinker.” Moira the real person finds this depiction — I’m sorry, Moira. I’ll let you speak for yourself.
Carol turns to Moira and gestures with her hand that Moira continue.
MOIRA. I find this depiction to be a disgusting violation of my privacy is what I will say for myself.
CAROL. Right, and many others feel the same way.
DIXIE. I see.
CAROL. I tell you this because there may well be a lawsuit in the future and we would like to corral as many supporters as we can.
MRS. MARSHALL. A lawsuit?
JANET. I can speak for myself and my husband and my three grown children when I say: We’re in! You can count on us!
MRS. MARSHALL. You plan to sue Sarah? My word, for what?
Dixie rises from her chair and begins pacing back and forth behind the semicircle, the book clutched in one hand.
CAROL. Like I said, and please don’t be alarmed, I am not suing Sarah on my own. This would be a group effort, of course.
MOIRA. A class-action lawsuit.
MRS. MARSHALL. You must be mad.
Mrs. Marshall rises from her seat and begins pacing within the tight space between the bookcase behind her and the next seat over.
PROFESSOR. Let me get this straight. Carol is organizing a class-action lawsuit to sue an author for the contents of her memoir, which include an inaccuracy about taking or not taking shoes off at the door —
CAROL. Not taking.
PROFESSOR. Something else about a mix-up between a seal and a sea otter, and the accurate description of your ex-husband, Moira, who does have a drinking problem and has discussed his mental illness openly with every person in this town.
CAROL. There are more complaints than just those.
PROFESSOR. Oh, I’m sure there are.
JANET. That little witch has nothing better to do, nothing better to write a book about, than our private lives! Her life is so boring that she can’t think of anything else than our husbands’ drinking problems to write about! Janet slaps her hands down in the book in her lap as she speaks. Sickening!
PROFESSOR. That and an important matter regarding the taking or not taking off of a pair of shoes.
CAROL. Not taking, for heaven’s sake!
PROFESSOR. The irony of course is that your biggest supporter, Janet over there, also happens to be a voracious advocate of everyone’s right to his or her own opinions.
JANET. What’s the joke, then? Don’t you twist my words, Professor!
PROFESSOR. I didn’t twist. That’s what you said. You said we each have a right to our opinions. All of us except for the author of this memoir, of course. She will be sued for hers.
MRS. MARSHALL. Let’s not start a war.
DIXIE. I think it’s only right that I notify Sarah of your plans.
JANET. Oh that’s rich, Professor. Now I’m the unfair one. I’m a victim of this piece-of-trash book and you’re going to make me out to be nuts!
PROFESSOR. You’re doing a fine job of that yourself.
CAROL. I’d prefer it if you didn’t notify the defendant, Dixie. Doing so will likely interfere with our case.
JANET. It’s written so badly, I can’t even make out the point of it! A woman spends a year somewhere and writes a revenge book about it? Who cares! Who would ever read this! And the whole book is wrong. There’s not one correct thing in here!
Janet is manically flipping through pages of her borrowed copy as she says this.
PROFESSOR. Not one correct account in her first-person memoir of her own life?
CAROL. As I said to many others, a lot of these problems could have been avoided if the author had simply provided the appropriate people with copies of the book’s draft before it was published. So we could have signed off on a final version.
MRS. MARSHALL. Carol, do you feel that would have warmed you to the idea of her memoir?
CAROL. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it is only lawful to do so. It is only lawful to seek permission from the people whose lives one is using in a book. A book that is for sale and will generate a profit.
DIXIE. Well I can’t not tell her. What if she asks me? I can’t lie right to her face. I can’t say, “Oh yes, everything is fine, everyone is thrilled.” What kind of person would that make me?
MRS. MARSHALL. I think you may be mistaken on that point, Carol.
PROFESSOR. Oh, you’re mistaken alright.
MOIRA. It only seems right.
JANET. Sounds right to me.
PROFESSOR. You really think it sounds right and fair and good for the author, a person you barely know, have known for a matter of months, to send you a draft of her book? For your approval before she publishes it?
CAROL. I wouldn’t have used the word “approval,” but yes, more or less. I think allowing us to have a look before the book was published would have been the decent thing to do.
DIXIE. I’m sorry, Carol, but I won’t be able to keep this from Sarah. She’s planned a visit with me in a week from now and I simply cannot lie to her face. And I want to say — I want to be heard on this — I’m really beginning to regret picking this book for Book Club.
PROFESSOR. And what does “have a look” really mean? Does it mean you would read over the draft and suggest changes? Improvements? Perhaps iron out any inaccuracies about how the author perceived her year among us?
CAROL. I don’t think you understand me.
MRS. MARSHALL. A lawsuit is very extreme.
CAROL. Dixie, listen to me. You absolutely cannot tell Sarah what our plans are. If she is able to get in front of this thing, who knows what she’ll be capable of doing. Please refrain from discussing any of this with the author. With Sarah.
PROFESSOR. Can you imagine — try to imagine that every memoir, or autobiography or whatever, had to first be approved by any person mentioned therein. Imagine that was the law. Imagine what toothless, sanitized stories we would be forced to read. Stories in which everyone in the book is portrayed in the best conceivable light. A way they themselves would approve of. What then? What would Bob Dylan’s memoir look like then?
JANET. I didn’t know we were talking about Bob Dylan’s memoir. That’s probably a memoir worth reading.
MRS. MARSHALL. Carol, I think the best thing to do is to graciously accept that a book below your standards has been published and that’s that. That’s the end of it.
Dixie sits down again in her chair but remains visibly uncomfortable. She is scratching her right arm, from elbow to wrist, the skin becoming more and more agitated.
MRS. MARSHALL. And Moira, I really am very sorry that you feel as exposed as you seem to. The good news is that no one outside of this little town knows that the “Moira” in the book is you, a real person, and no one who does live here has learned anything from this book they did not already know.
CAROL. I wish it were that simple. Everyone knows me to be a reasonable person. You people have known me for years and I am a judicious and reasonable person, but I cannot stand for this.
PROFESSOR. To be clear, you cannot stand that you are characterized in a book as the kind of person who asks other people to take their shoes off when they enter your home.
CAROL. Professor, please don’t be obtuse. As I have said many times, I cannot stand for a book to be published under the false categorization of “non-fiction” when it is nothing more than someone’s particular version of events and not non-fiction at all. Nothing more than a young lady’s perception of a year spent in so-called isolation with a bunch of strange people. I cannot tolerate the allegation that we are hiding secrets here, that we have unsavoury pasts, or that we can be unkind to one another. That is not us. We are not those people.
DIXIE. Oh, I don’t think the book is only about those things. I think it’s about trying to find a place, see a dream come alive, and finding that it’s much harder than one could ever have imagined. And I just adore the passages about the past — not any kind of unsavoury past, not about us — I mean the history of this place.
JANET. This is nuts. I’ll never understand how you can stand by that book and that woman, Dixie. Never.
PROFESSOR. Janet, I’m curious, what was your favourite element of the book? What passages did you enjoy?
JANET. Oh, go to hell, Professor.
The Professor gets up and crosses the room toward the coffee station and refills the kettle.
PROFESSOR. Tea, anyone?
MRS. MARSHALL. It may be time to wrap this up. I’m sorry we didn’t get to your question earlier, Dixie, the one about outsiders. No tea for me.
CAROL. No tea for me either.
MOIRA. May I just say, before we wrap this up—
DIXIE. I’m getting tired, Moira.
MOIRA. I sat here and listened to all of you. I only have one more thing to say on the subject.
MRS. MARSHALL. What is it?
MOIRA. Thank you. I want to say that for me it’s about the names. It just is. Why not change the names to protect privacy? There must be a law against that, at least. It really is about the names, for me. About using our real names like that.
CAROL. Well, we’ll soon see what a lawyer has to say about all of that, won’t we?
Moira hangs her head and clasps her hands in her lap.
PROFESSOR. I don’t know that I can make it next week for Book Club. I may need to take a break.
A knock is heard at the front door. After a second’s pause, Belle enters the room, full of energy and glee. She stands near the door and unties her shoes as she speaks.
BELLE. Oh, gosh, is there still time? Have I missed the whole thing? I just had volleyball practice — sorry! — oh, hi Moira, hi Carol.
CAROL. No need to take off your shoes, dear.
DIXIE. Did you bring back the borrowed copy of the book, Belle? My copy, did you bring it with you?
Dixie is scratching wildly now. Belle stops fiddling with her shoelaces and stands up.
BELLE. Oh, I forgot to say — oh, I have news! — Sarah is coming, the author Sarah is coming next week to our book club! I invited her!
JANET. You did what?
DIXIE. She’s coming here? To the library?
PROFESSOR. This oughta be good.
BELLE. Yes, I invited her on Facebook. She posted about coming up this way to visit Dixie, I think it was, and so I posted back that she should stop into our book club ’cause we’re doing her book and then she posted yeah, that she would, so . . . she’s coming!
MRS. MARSHALL. What a surprise. At least we have a few days to prepare. Perhaps we should make a poster or hold a book signing?
JANET. Oh, she’s got a pair alright. I look forward to having a few words with her. Some set of nuts on that one alright.
Janet stands up and lets the book in her lap fall to the floor, pages splayed. She crosses the room, pulls her coat down from the hook, opens the door, and without saying goodbye, walks out of the room.
DIXIE. If people borrow another’s belongings, they ought to take care of those belongings.
Dixie picks up the book Janet has dropped on the floor and dusts it off.
BELLE. Oh man, oops. I feel like I did something wrong. Was that the wrong thing to do?
MRS. MARSHALL. It’s fine. I’m looking forward to talking with Sarah again.
Carol gets up from her chair. She passes her copy of the book to Dixie and heads for the door. Moira follows.
CAROL. I will see all of you next week, then.
MRS. MARSHALL. Alright, then.
DIXIE. Yes, well, next week.
PROFESSOR. I think I may come to next week’s meeting after all.
MOIRA. Goodbye, everyone.
Carol and Moira open the door and leave the room. Dixie collects the strewn copies and puts the books in an organized pile near the door. She then begins stacking the chairs.
MRS. MARSHALL. I’m sure things will have calmed down significantly by the time next week rolls around. Nothing to worry about, I’m sure.
DIXIE. It’s just . . . a lawsuit?
PROFESSOR. Oh, there’s not going to be any lawsuit. You can’t take someone to court for hurting your feelings.
DIXIE. What a mess.
PROFESSOR. I propose we settle into my back yard with a fine glass of whiskey. Mrs. Marshall? Dixie?
MRS. MARSHALL. Yes, I think I will.
DIXIE. I will too. I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes; I need to lock up.
The Professor collects jackets as Mrs. Marshall slings her purse over her shoulder. The Professor opens the door, and both walk out of the room, chatting quietly as they do. Dixie places the last chair on the stack and stands in the middle of the room, hands on her hips, and looks around. She crosses the stage and turns off the tea kettle. After fussing with the garbage lid, she exhales loudly. Dixie gathers her grocery bags, three on each arm, opens the door, and turns off the light with her elbow.
Amber McMillan is the author of the memoir The Woods: A Year on Protection Island and the poetry collection We Can’t Ever Do This Again. Her work has also appeared in PRISM international, Arc Poetry Magazine, and the Walrus. She lives in Fredericton.
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James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.