Review: They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

Good grief


THEY LEFT US EVERYTHING by Plum Johnson (Penguin), 274 pages, $22 paper. Rating: NNN


Grief is a universal thing. We all experience it at some time, which is what makes writing about it difficult. Unless the person she mourns is very unusual, an author can easily fall into clichés. 

For the most part, Plum Johnson’s Charles Taylor Prize-winning memoir about packing up her parents’ house after her mother’s death avoids that trap. That’s because Johnson writes with clarity, wit and a powerful descriptive voice that makes the rambling family home she moves back into for 16 weeks a character in itself.

This is a highly privileged clan, and that can get in the way of connecting with the family. Johnson’s irrepressible mother, a descendant of George Washington, grew up with maids and cooks in Virginia. Her charismatic father, though something of a martinet, was born poor but became famous when books were written about his daring escape from a Japanese POW camp during the second world war.

Her parents had the kind of tumultuous relationship that could fuel a work of fiction. Unfortunately, Johnson doesn’t focus very much on what kind of impact that had on her and her own connections. You want to ask her, “Is that all you’re going to say about that?” That applies, too, to her father’s obviously abusive behaviour. She doesn’t even name it as such until close to the end.

There’s much more about family heirlooms and just plain stuff. Tender sequences describe her emptying the pocket’s of her mum’s clothes, and the moment when she and her three brothers head to the attic to find boxes that haven’t been touched in decades has lots of tension. But the book takes a definite dip during the cleanup. I don’t know why Johnson waits until the final pages to describe her mother’s remarkable experiences during the war.

They Left Us Everything is a good read – though not the best non-fiction I’ve read this year.

It does, however, offer a reminder that people sorting through their parents’ digs will soon have a very different experience. There will be no letters to read or picture albums to peruse. Technology will change the way we grieve.     

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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