Books·First Look

David A. Robertson's new novel The Theory of Crows is a dramatic tale of hurt & healing — read an excerpt now

The bestselling Swampy Cree author is back with a debut adult novel.
David A. Robertson is a Governor General's Literary Award-winning author of Swampy Cree heritage. (Amber Green)

The Theory of Crows is the latest book from bestselling Canadian author David A. Robertson

Robertson's debut adult novel is about a disconnected and distant relationship between a man named Matthew and his teenage daughter Holly. Following a tragic event, Matthew and Holly come together and head out onto the land in search of a long-lost cabin on the family trapline, miles from the Cree community they once called home.

When things go wrong during the journey, they find they have only each other to turn to for support. What happens to father and daughter on the land will test them and eventually heal them in ways they never thought possible.

Robertson is an award-winning author and graphic novelist based in Winnipeg. The multi-talented writer of Swampy Cree heritage has published 25 books across a variety of genres, including the graphic novels Will I See? and Sugar Falls, YA book Strangers, the memoir Black Water and the Governor General's Literary Award-winning picture books called When We Were Alone and On the Trapline, both illustrated by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett.

Robertson served as the CBC Books judge of The First Page student writing challenge in 2020-2021. His middle-grade book series includes The Barren Grounds and The Great BearThe Barren Grounds was a finalist for the 2020 Governor General's Literary Prize for young people's literature — text.

He also hosts the CBC Manitoba podcast Kiwew and is one of the Indigenous creators who contributed to the graphic novel anthology This Place.

Robertson told CBC Books writing his first adult novel book was a "confluence of lived experience" that has been building up for the past couple of years. This includes the experiences and events depicted in his memoir Black Water, a book that won two 2021 Manitoba Book Awards.

"When I went to the trapline with my father in 2018, he told me of another trapline that he'd lived on as a child, that was lost to him. I thought, then, one day we would find it together. When my father died, I imagined going with him still and bringing him there to rest. That became the framework for the novel, a coming home, both physically and spiritually," said Robertson.

"Personally, the last two years have been a struggle from a mental health standpoint. Losing my father and then spiraling from anxiety into depression left me in a bad place. It affected my relationships, most notably with my oldest daughter. Living with my dad's teachings, hearing his voice, thinking about our time together on the land, many things, helped me to heal — and through that, heal the relationship with my daughter.

"I put all of that together for The Theory of Crows. It was a way for me to continue to heal, because sharing truths through story is healing for me."

You can read an excerpt from The Theory of Crows below.

I was eight when my grandmother died. She'd gone to residential school when she was five, until she was about as old as you are now. If you think about the worst things kids went through in those schools, then you can imagine what happened to my grandmother. She went through hell, came out the other side, but the flames never really went out. Survivors talk about their experiences now, and I think it helps them, but nobody was listening back then, and so there was nobody to talk to. My grandmother died from a lung issue. I'm not sure what kind, just that eventually she couldn't breathe anymore. Maybe keeping in all that truth took the breath from her body. Sucked it clean out. 

Or maybe she just died. 

"Now what?" I asked my mother, lying in bed one night after the funeral. 

"Now nothing," she said. (Your grandfather believes in the Creator, your grandmother not so much.)

"What do you mean nothing?" 

"She's dead. She'll live on in our memories." 

Being remembered isn't the afterlife. That's others using their working brains to think about you.

That's not really living. I knew that then as much as I do now. Being remembered isn't the afterlife. That's others using their working brains to think about you. When you die, you won't know if somebody's remembering you or not. I told her something like that, in a way that an eight-year-old would say it, and then my mother just shrugged it off. She told me that my grandmother didn't know she was alive before she was born, she wouldn't know she was alive after she passed away, and that's the way it was. That's the way it was for everybody. 

"Are you trying to make me feel better?"

"We all share the same fate, son. Isn't that comforting? Isn't it nice to know that we're all in the same boat?"

That's one f---ing sh---y boat, I thought. 

For years after that, I'd lie in bed and I'd think about what my mother had said, and it would keep me up all night. I'd get out of bed and wander the house aimlessly. I remember one night, I ended up by the front windows of our house, staring up at the sky, at the stars, at the moon, and then past all of that. I held up my hand and looked at my palm in the moon's soft light, looked at all the tiny lines that covered my skin. They were as small to me as I was to the world, as the world was to the universe, as the universe was to eternity, and I felt crushed by the weight of it all. 

For years after that, I'd lie in bed and I'd think about what my mother had said, and it would keep me up all night.

On nights like that, I'd crawl into my parents' bed. My dad would be awake. I guess he came to expect that sometime in the night, I'd wedge myself between him and my mother. He'd put his hand on my stomach, all those little lines on his palm pressed against my skin, and tell me to raise his hand, then lower it, with my breath. 

"Like this?" 

I'd breathe into my stomach. I'd watch his hand rise, then fall.

"Like that."

 My pulse would slow. My breath would slow. I'd watch his hand until my eyelids grew heavy. 

When I opened my eyes, it would be morning. 

And I think about that. I think about how we sleep one-third of our life away. Life's already so short I'm afraid that if I close my eyes, it'll be too late to make things right with you. I've already been asleep for so long.   

Adapted from The Theory of Crows by David A. Robertson. Copyright © 2022 David A. Robertson. Published by Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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