Plum Johnson wins the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize

The gobsmacked author rose wonderfully to the occasion, writes Brian Bethune

Photo by Jaime Hogge

Photo by Jaime Hogge

For someone manifestly surprised by her win—gobsmacked, in fact—Plum Johnson rose wonderfully to the occasion at the RBC Taylor Prize announcement.

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.

Related: RBC Taylor Prize nominees: Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything

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.”

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