Memoirs are not easy to write—include too many details and the story gets lost in minutiae; not enough detail and the story of a person’s life and experience can appear vague and generalized. The brilliance of What You Take With You lies in the author’s ability to walk that line, recounting and exploring her experiences of the Horse River Fire—which burned Fort McMurray in 2016—clearly and evocatively in relation to personal objects she saved in a box. “I think about the small box I packed when the fire came for me,” she writes, “a box I carried down a dark highway and sent on ahead to meet me later. I think about how my life changed in an instant. I think about how it didn’t change at all.”
When the fire came, Greenwood, a writer, broadcaster and former college instructor, quickly yet consciously chose 10 objects from her life to preserve. Among the things she put in the box were antique sleigh bells from her paternal grandfather, her late father’s El Degas guitar and her maternal grandmother’s needlepoint of her home in the Netherlands. Each of those cherished items is the focus of a chapter connecting the object to Greenwood’s evacuation from Fort McMurray—a harrowing journey: “The first image of McMurray that will spring to my mind,” she writes, “is of a young RCMP constable alone in the middle of an intersection while flames creep along the side of the highway and cars full of desperate families speed past.”
As a narrative device, the discussion of the objects allows Greenwood to move back and forth seamlessly across time, experiences, personal history and connections to people and places. The reader becomes an observer of her life and the history that shaped her. In this, Greenwood’s memoir opens a window into the resilience of people, and communities, that need to rebuild lives, homes and infrastructure after a disaster.
Research shows attachment to place, and social interactions that enhance emotional ties, are essential for personal resilience. Communities that can cope with divisions, have a shared sense of history, and together create a sense of belonging are also resilient. Greenwood’s account of evacuating Fort McMurray and dealing with a multitude of issues after the fire illustrates her own resilience. The people represented by the objects she took from her home showed her it’s possible to move forward after devastation. Rather than ruminating about the fire and all she lost, she gathers her history and memories and carries on. By doing so she contributes to the resilience of her community. The message of this highly readable memoir is that each of us has the ability and opportunity to do the same.
—Judith Kulig is a professor emerita at the University of Lethbridge.