The 68-year-old author of They Left Us Everything, an account of caring for her beyond-difficult parents and the aftermath of their deaths—an encounter with intertwined memory and mess in a stuffed-to-bursting 23-room house above the shore of Lake Ontario—mounted the stage at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel devoid of prepared remarks and declared, “This just shows the power of my mother. I thought the jury made the selection.”
Johnson had serious competition on a strong shortlist: David O’Keefe’s One Day in August, which delves into the truth behind the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942, the worst day in Canadian military history; The Last Asylum, historian Barbara Taylor’s account of her experiences within the British mental-health system while it was undergoing massive change in the 1980s and ’90s; And Home Was Kariakoo, a memoir of East Africa by M.G. Vassanji, two-time winner of the Giller prize for his novels; and Kathleen Winter’s beautiful Arctic travel memoir, Boundless.
But the jury took to what they called Johnson’s personal memoir of “grief, growth and de-cluttering.” And perhaps its universality.
There are “so many people going through this with their parents now,’ Johnson agrees in an a later interview, and their stories, like Johnson’s, keep unfolding. “I heard the house—renovated, flipped and sold—was finally occupied in the last month or so. So I mustered up the courage to go knock on the door, and found a young couple with five children, like my brothers and me.”
Johnson was relieved to find the new occupants, who had been given a copy of They Left Us Everything by their realtor, were excited to meet her and welcomed her inside. “The whole back opens to the lake now, and as I looked out, the sky darkened and there was a sound of flapping wings, as huge flock of geese, thousands of them, came down onto the lake, just as they did when my mother died.”