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Reviews: Finding Myself in Borneo by Neill McKee

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

★★★★★ 5 star reviews

“When Neill McKee was trying to grow up he traveled from his home in Canada to a comparatively primitive place, the island of Borneo. Trying to grow up is hard enough, but he chose to do it in a foreign land. He does not portray himself as a swashbuckling debonair James Bond type of hero. On the contrary he was a bit of a nerd, whose greatest pleasure was fantasizing that JRR Tolkien had modeled the geography of Lord of the Rings on this very island.

Out of the exotic scenes and foreign encounters, emerges the universal story of a young person trying to figure out how to become the adult. . . . I love the way his youthful mission kept evolving in parallel with his personhood – the intertwining of this development of self through the adventure of traveling is as old as civilization – heroes throughout the ages have ‘gone forth to the land of adventure’ in order to find their deeper truths. McKee has kept this tradition alive thus updating the Hero’s Journey for our times.”

—Jerry Waxler, Amazon Review

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Prepublication Reviews:

“Neill McKee’s work takes us on a true adventure. His keen observations of North Borneo re-imagine a time and place via a unique journey. McKee’s writing stirs the imagination and simultaneously explains a place less traveled. His eye and ear forstartling detail and understanding of political dimensions make this work a fascinating and eye-opening read.”

—Diane Thiel, author and professor, University of New Mexico:

“I love it. It has so many qualities that the usual memoir lacks. Neill McKee is honest about himself, not in any way self-absorbed, but he shares his opinions with attractive openness. McKee is lyrical about the countryside and I felt I was with him as he enjoyed the humorous side of life and the characters in the cramped town of Kota Belud. Nothing drags with different scenes in the short chapters in this book. It is a refreshing journey around a fascinating slice of Borneo with the best of guides.”

—Clyde Sanger, author and journalist, Ottawa, Canada

“What a great story! One can't help but become engaged in McKee's adventures and experiences in such an unusual locale. He recognized the importance of staying out of local politics and feuds and focused instead on the lively and rich panorama of Sabah culture and its setting. His founding of the North Borneo Frodo Society is, of course, a highlight, but there are many others, like his motorcycle rides through the countryside, his encounters with a confused school headmaster, and his initial frustrations in becoming a film maker. The illustrations, maps, and short history of Borneo are welcome additions to this memorable story. His comments and musings about return visits to Kota Belud were especially thoughtful and meaningful to anyone who makes such a journey to an earlier home.”

—Monika Ghattas

“The author has a very frank and matter-of-fact approach to writing that I found particularly enjoyable. His takes on the culture and people, coupled with his unique perspective as an absolute outsider, were informative, and wonderful. The detail and clarity of thought were such that I could almost see and experience the events that he has so appealingly put to paper. All in all, I rather enjoyed this compendium of Mr. McKee's escapades and shall keep my eyes peeled for a sequel if he is so inclined.”

—Sreevarsha Sreejith

“What a delightful read!…I have a similar picture of my wife and me on our Norton taken at about the same time, only on the other side of the mountain. From the front cover onward, the memories came flooding back. Our experiences and observations were very much the same, (except for the sex, drugs, rock & roll and Frodo)….Those were happy and care-free times in our lives and his words exude that. The language re-training was helpful to this old brain of mine too, as so many words in Bahasa Melayu came back to me. We will be buying three more copies of the book, one for each of our children so that they can know more about our Borneo experience without us having to drone on about it when they are held captive.”

—Ron and Mary Hunt, Charleston, SC

“Tracing his time as a Canadian CUSO volunteer teaching in a remote North Borneo village in the late 1960s, Neill McKee exhibits the quality every good story-teller must have to charm readers or listeners: an intense desire to share what he knows.Detailed descriptions provide authenticity that grounds the memoir in a specific reality. As he reminisces about his sojourns in Sabah, he includes the hilarious creation of the North Borneo Frodo Society, which continues in a gentle nostalgic form even today. It is a present reminder that those years he spent in Sabah,Malaysia, changed his life forever.”

—Isabel Huggan, international writer of fiction, essays, and poetry:

“McKee’s work proves the notion that every journey is undertaken at least as much through the inner world as it is through the outer. From the vast open spaces of Canada tothe jungles of Borneo, and from youth through the straits of teaching, traveling, and growing, McKee takes us on a Motorcycle Diaries-type journey, as written by a man who would become a filmmaker, an expert in international development, and a father. The world that we follow McKee through, almost like ghosts floating over his shoulder, is one of true friends and near misses, one that is familiar and foreign in equal parts. If McKee’s first journey was to Borneo, and his second into his own unknown future, we get to take his third journey with him, back into the land of what-was. Finding Myself in Borneo is a beautifulbook about a brilliant life—a rare read.”

—Michael Buckley, short story writer:

“The stories in this book pick up three decades after the publication of a classical memoir by Agnes Newton Keith, Land Below the Wind, on colonial North Borneo. It is a highly readable flashback to life of a foreign volunteer teacher in Sabah during the 1960s and 1970s—a time when big changes were just starting to sweep across a land full of eager communities and unspoilt tropical forest. In the closing chapters, McKee makes bitter-sweet visits back to Sabah. As a filmmaker, he surveys the land by helicopter to find much of what he remembered has gone—vast stretches of forest felled by political and economic forces. But in Kota Belud, he is reunited with some of his students and is delighted that they have all succeed in life and contributed in positive ways, in spite of recent trends. Travelers will find this book a fascinating read. McKee's succinct wit offers first-time visitors to Borneo vivid historical bearings to frame their present-day experiences, as they travel through this land, still full of many attractions. Malaysians and Sabahans will discover in McKee's observations, issues to debate on rainy afternoons.”

—S. Y. Chin, Asia-based editor

“Finding Myself in Borneo brought back so many warm memories of our own experiences in the US Peace Corps in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Although we were posted to Liberia, West Africa, McKee’s stories induced a lot of discussion about our generation and its ideals. McKee’s insights into living in another culture are entertaining, perceptive and informative. We want to read moreabout his life experiences and are already looking forward to his next book.”

—James and Vivian Bowman, returned Peace Corps volunteers, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

“Neill McKee joins a rare band who dare to write about what they brought to volunteering and, realized later in life, what they received, learned and cherish. The book takes us to the roots of his career when he was a secondary school teacher in Sabah, where he became a filmmaker and then a specialist in media and mobilization for positive social change. That McKee was able to return to Sabah a number of times after his volunteer years, offers the opportunity to match the anecdotes to what in fact happened to the people who touched his life, and he theirs. That is an opportunity and courage I envy.”

—Christopher Smart, returned CUSO volunteer, Ottawa, Canada

“Neill McKee captures the spirit of Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia. As I read, I was transported to the immaculate greens, the deepened shadows of mountains silhouetted against the hot, sapphire skies; the hullabaloo that constituted the heart of the vibrant Asian culture in the era he lived in North Borneo. I felt I was riding with him on his motorbike as the enthralling splendor of the place unfolded. It’s an enchanting narrative and I couldn’tstop until I had consumed the entire book!”

—Nuzhat Shahzadi, writer, Fairfax, Virginia, USA

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