Plum Johnson's memoir They Left Us Everything, a poetic meditation on aging, grief and filial responsibility, was awarded the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize on Monday.
The winner of the annual award, which celebrates excellence in Canadian literary non-fiction, receives $25,000.
"This is just stunning to me," a visibly moved Ms. Johnson said at the start of her acceptance speech. "I feel like I'm going to faint."
They Left Us Everything, which Penguin Canada published last March, chronicles the year Ms. Johnson and her three younger brothers spent decluttering, cleaning and eventually selling their lakefront childhood home in Oakville, Ont., after their mother's death. It is the 68-year-old Ms. Johnson's first book.
"I'm virtually starting a new career," Ms. Johnson said. "It's not that I haven't written [before] – I've been writing all my life – but as an author, it's brand new. And to start this late in life is hard enough, at a certain level. But to then just be propelled by the prize, to be on everybody's radar all of a sudden – you're going basically from zero to 60 in a second. I think that's what is shocking to me.
"It gives me confidence that my writing can be worth something," she continued. "I find I have a lot to say now – like it's been storing up for a while. I feel like this was a peer review. It says, 'Okay, you can write.'"
This year's jury, which considered 128 books submitted by publishers across Canada, was composed of Martin Levin, a former Globe and Mail books editor; Kevin Garland, former executive director of the National Ballet of Canada; and author and scholar Andrew Preston, who won the prize in 2013 for Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. In the citation, the jury called Ms. Johnson's book "beautifully observed and written with great warmth and wit."
The other finalists were two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji for And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa; U.K.-based historian Barbara Taylor for The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times; military historian David O'Keefe for One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe; and Kathleen Winter for Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage.
Each runner-up receives $2,000.
Past winners of the prize, which was established in honour of the late journalist and author Charles Taylor, include Carol Shields, Andrew Westoll, Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown and Thomas King, who won last year's prize for The Inconvenient Indian.
The ceremony was held at the King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto. A little more than an hour after it ended, Ms. Johnson filmed an interview in a nearby studio. As she waited for recording to begin, she spotted the cover of her book, which features a black-and-white family photograph, on a nearby screen.
"They would both be thrilled," she said. "Dad would be amazed, and Mom would be thrilled – despite having been the subject of the book."