Review: What You Take With You

What you take with you

What You Take With YouTherese Greenwood. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2019.

Summary: Therese Greenwood had minutes to evacuate her home as the Fort McMurray fire approached. The book recounts both her escape, and reflects on what she took, and what this revealed about her life.

A wildfire is rapidly approaching. Floodwaters are rising around you and you have minutes to escape. Thousands of people face this every year. Sometimes we idly think of what we would take if we only had minutes to flee our home. Therese Greenwood, who always feared she would die in a fire had such thoughts as well. She even worked in with an emergency preparedness organization for a time. And then she found out what she would really take when the order came to evacuate her neighborhood as the Fort McMurray fire bore down on her subdivision.

This book is both an account of her flight and a reflection on the articles she rescued and what her spur-of-the-moment choices told her about her life. Of course she had her “go bag” prepared that contained insurance policies and other important papers. These would prove necessary in the days ahead. It is what else she took that was revealing.

Her description of the drive to pick up her husband captures the rising fear many must have felt, sitting in traffic jams, smoke all around, windows rolled up (and air conditioning failing), watching the gas gauge creep toward empty. She reaches Steve in an empty downtown office building as flames appear in the distant hills. Eventually they end up in Edmonton, staying in a hotel with many other evacuees, hitting the Walmart for the necessities they left behind, waiting anxiously to find out whether they would have a home to return to. Steve later watches a video of someone driving through the neighborhood. Houses on one side of the street are still standing. Those on the others are gone, a crater where a house once was. Their home was on that side of the street. Greenwood’s narrative captures what is like for evacuees who have lost everything, and the challenge a community faces when thousands have lost their homes.

There are many such stories. What distinguishes Greenwood’s is its reflection on what she had saved from the fire–a rolling pin, a plaster saint, sleigh bells, a Bible and a bee book, a special needlepoint, her father’s musical instruments, an unusual mirror that was a wedding gift, a quilt and an award. Each reflects a chapter of her life and reflected something that endured that was ineluctably hers amid all the loss.

It isn’t all fear and thoughtful reflection. One of the striking parts of the book was her relationship with Hudson, A.K.A. “Big Stinky Dog,” a high maintenance, smelly old dog owned by her husband’s parents, who they stayed with for a time, a time that coincided with Steve’s mother’s death. Steve’s  dad Ray had to leave for a time, and Therese ended up caring for Big Stinky Dog, and found herself refusing a suggestion to put the dog down.

Many of us live in homes made comfortable with the accumulations of years, perhaps carried on one move to the next. This book asks the question of what would we choose when our choices are stripped bare and we act on instincts that reflect our subconscious sense of what may matter most deeply. It explores the lives we forge, the places where we define identity, the people who are dearest in life and memory, reflected in what we take, and in what is left of us when we’ve had to leave most of our “stuff” behind.

One of the greatest treasures in life may be to understand both where we have come from and who we have come to be. It seems that Therese’s reflections gave her some of those insights. Perhaps reading and reflecting with her might do the same for us.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.