Nonfiction Review by Kate Kennedy

Kelley Jo Burke, Wreck: A Very Anxious Memoir (Regina: Radiant Press, 2021). Paperbound, 168 pp., $22.

WreckThe first chapter of Regina playwright Kelley Jo Burke’s memoir is an “About the Author” that begins: “You know those memoirs that people write after they’ve chatted everything over with those concerned and made sure everybody’s good with it, and they just want the writer to feel free to speak their whole truth? This is not that.” It’s the first of many reminders that this is not a tidy telling, and the author is well aware. What it is, in part, is an on‐the‐fly schooling in the thought patterns characteristic of diagnosed anxiety. If messiness is off‐putting to you, I would suggest sticking around anyway, because amid the chaos (itself often slyly charming) is a great deal of grace. Other memoirs attempt to pinpoint home or investigate questions of inheritance, but the book that leapt first to mind as I read Wreck was Lucy Ellmann’s gigantic 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport. As unlike as the two are in volume, they share a dedication to consciousness, relaying the interruptions and old hang‐ups and refrains that muddle linear narrative into something much more interesting.

centres on a lighthouse, a spiritual and literal beacon. Burke’s is located on a little piece of land called the Nubble, just north of York Beach, Maine, where her grandparents’ cottage is and where she has spent happy times in her childhood. The image of it has always been a source of calm for her, but as an adult far away in the Canadian prairies, her claim on it has become increasingly tenuous, as has her connection to her extended family on both sides, old New England families (the Burkes and the Adamses) with very different ideas of themselves.

When Burke is six, her dad takes a job at the University of Manitoba. At a physical remove from the duelling Burke/Adams lineage, the family coalesces into a more unified identity, a dark, quirky brand of not‐Canadian that Burke calls “Addams Family North.” The family’s arrival in Canada is one of my favourite parts of the book. During their bitterly cold first winter in Winnipeg, dumped outside in snowmobile suits, Kelley Jo and her brother, Steve, seem more reminiscent of Gashlycrumb Tinies than wholesome newcomers. Alone together, the family revels in their antique furniture and off‐kilter sensibilities. “We lived in the shadows, spoke like renaissance gentlemen, and would have worked well in black and white.”

But the move sticks, and decades later, living in Regina with her husband and children, Burke even elects to renounce her American citizenship altogether. This is recounted in another of my favourite scenes, a bureaucratic caper at the American embassy in Calgary that reads something like a version of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” (“and they all moved away from me on the bench”).

Burke makes two noteworthy trips back to the Nubble as an adult, one in 1996, the year after her grandmother Teen’s death. Her grandfather, culpable insofar as he brought Teen home to the cottage when he knew she could not live outside the hospital, is now himself in ill health, both mental and physical. Then in 2018, Burke secures a writing grant to return to Maine to write the memoir we hold in our hands. Having made arrangements with the new owners to stay in the cottage, and accompanied by her husband, Eric, Burke recounts how she meets head‐on her expectations for the trip. These scenes are painful and, as one might expect by this point in the book, also very funny.

Wreck is about testing theories of memory, questioning well‐meaning attempts at tidiness. In one of the book’s last chapters, having mocked her own project at laying claim to the Nubble and to being of the sea, Burke concludes: “My goodness that is all a sloppy bit of curation.” As her Auntie Pam puts it elsewhere: “Sweetie, you write it any way you want. But it didn’t happen.” Sometimes the things we repeat to ourselves turn out to be the least true, but repetition serves this book well and feels of a piece with anxiousness, the moments of resolve that turn out to be very much temporary. Among others there are the twin refrains of Teen’s sometimes delusional‐seeming satisfaction with her life at the cottage (“We are so happy here.”) and Grampa’s request to be taken care of, finally: “Could I come up thay’uh and live with you?” When he does move up to Regina, it is, naturally, quite chaotic.

Wreck will resound with anyone who has seen a beloved family property sold, made a pilgrimage only to find the destination less than expected, or tried to reconcile two sides of their lineage with the person that they are—wanting it to make more sense than it possibly can. And if Burke’s scattershot style is at times frustrating, you can almost always hear her saying, “Yeah, tell me about it.”

—Kate Kennedy

As in The Malahat Review, 217, winter 2021