> Zed Book Club / Winnipeg author David A. Robertson’s first adult novel was inspired by his deepest fears as a father
Photo: Amber Green
Winnipeg author David A. Robertson’s first adult novel was inspired by his deepest fears as a father
In “The Theory of Crows,” an estranged dad and his teenage daughter go on a wilderness journey that tests them, and their bond. / BY Dene Moore / February 2nd, 2023
David Alexander Robertson is on the phone from his home in Winnipeg, fitting an interview into his day after fixing breakfast for his children.
“The most important job I have is as a father,” says Robertson, who has five children who range in age from seven to 19. It was his life as a dad and as a son that motivated the award-winning children’s and young adult author to write his first novel for adults, The Theory of Crows.
“One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is the connection that my children have had with their grandparents and in a lot of my work, I’ve wanted to try to articulate the importance of those connections, in how we can learn from each other and how the stories that we share and listen to within our families can help us to understand ourselves better, help us to grow and to heal and to move forward together.”
Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation, is the author of 25 books, including 2016’s When We Were Alone and 2021’s On the Trapline, illustrated books for young people that both won Governor General’s literary awards. His 2020 memoir, Blackwater: Family, Legacy and Blood Memory, about growing up with no connection to his Indigenous culture, won the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award and made several best books lists that year.
He says The Theory of Crows is a spiritual continuation of Blackwater, an intensely personal book inspired by the death of his father in 2019 and his relationship with his eldest daughter. “As a writer, you want to work through the things that you’re struggling with and the things that are in your heart or that you are trying to work through emotionally, and the way that you do that is you write,” he says. “It came out as a story that incorporates all these elements that I’ve been going through into a fictional story.”
The novel centres around Matthew, a man lost in the fog of depression after the death of his father, and his 16-year-old daughter Holly, who is struggling with anxiety and the deep hurt caused by her dad’s emotional absence. When a great heartbreak occurs, the father and daughter head out from their Cree community to find a long-lost cabin on the family’s remote trapline, alone on the land their ancestors once called home. It’s a journey of loss and healing, one that tests them and their bond.
A slight breeze danced through the forest, rustling leaves. It sounded as if they were being applauded. Their paddles broke the surface of the river, urged the canoe forward, then came up for air. They’d found a rhythm. The vessel lunged forward, paused, lunged forward, paused.
“You were saying,” she said, “about honesty.”
“Right,” he said, “honesty. It’s not the kind of honesty where you don’t lie …” He paused, as though Holly might throw another dagger, but none came. “Honesty means being true to who you are, how Creator made you, if you believe in that kind of stuff.”
“What if you’re lost?” she said. “How can you be true to who you are if you’re lost?”
“I guess you have to find your way,” he said.
As in all Robertson’s work, the land is a character as much as the people, whether it’s a graphic novel or illustrated children’s book. Family connections are important, too. “Writing this book was a part of the healing process,” he says. “Without my children and without my wife, I would be totally lost. That’s why it’s there in all my work.”
Educating people about Indigenous culture is, in part, what spurred him to become a writer – his dream since he was eight years old. When he began years ago, he says Canadian children didn’t know much about residential schools or the history of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
“Now, in 2022, you would be very hard-pressed to speak to a kid who does not know about that history. So, there’s been a lot of steps taken and a lot of that is because stories have been written by Indigenous writers who have told that history, and those books have gone into classrooms, and kids have read them and learned from them.”
It’s not just children. Every week, books by Indigenous writers are on bestseller lists because people want to read Indigenous stories, Robertson points out. “That’s encouraging.”
He’ll continue to contribute to the world of Indigenous fiction with a second adult novel due to be published in 2025, tentatively titled Hunter, about a young Cree man who has just four days to atone for past misdeeds before he can journey on to the afterlife.