The Next Chapter·Q&A

David A. Robertson honours his father, family and the land in his debut adult novel The Theory of Crows

The prolific Swampy Cree author spoke with Shelagh Rogers on location at the Wordfest festival in Calgary about the inspiration behind his latest book.
The Theory of Crows is a novel by David A. Robertson (Harper Perennial, Amber Green)
David A. Robertson talks to Shelagh Rogers about his novel, The Theory of Crows.

David A. Robertson has explored the bonds of family in his memoir, Black Water and in his Governor General's Literary Award-winning children's book On the Trapline

The Theory of Crows is Robertson's first novel for adults. It opens with a family under strain: We meet Matthew and his 16-year-old daughter Holly, short for Hallelujah. They've drifted apart and the divide seems to be growing until they set out to find the family trapline and bring the ashes of beloved Mushum, Holly's grandfather and Matthew's father back to the land.

Robertson is a member of the Norway House, Cree Nation and he was recently appointed as editorial director of a new imprint at Tundra Books, where he will shape, launch and oversee a new children's imprint dedicated to publishing new and emerging Indigenous writers and illustrators. 

He spoke with Shelagh Rogers at a live event at Wordfest in Calgary about his latest novel The Theory of Crows and steering a new Indigenous-authored imprint as an editorial director for Penguin Random House Canada.

A calming presence

"Matt is someone who is a very thinly-veiled version of myself.

"He's been struggling a lot for a long time. The one constant for him has been his father. That's his anchor. And so when Matt is going through a panic attack or when he's really struggling, he'll go call his dad. He'll go for a walk with his dad and his dad will bring him back.

He would sometimes just sit with me and his presence alone would help me breathe deeper and feel calmer.

"That was my dad for me. I remember I had a couple of panic attacks and I would immediately get on the phone with my dad and go over there. He would sometimes just sit with me; his presence alone would help me breathe deeper and feel calmer. It would help pull me back from the chaos that happens in your mind when you go through a panic attack.

"I wanted to honour him in that way in the book, so he is to Matt what my dad was to me."

A rift between father and daughter

"It's hard being a teenager. You're going through so many things in your mind and your body that you don't understand the emotions that you feel. That's just part of the difficulties of growing up. In the book, Holly struggles a lot with anxiety.

He fills this void in his self in really unhealthy ways, and the relationship impacted the most is the one between him and his daughter.

"At the same time, Matt has pulled himself away from the family and has become disillusioned with life. He doesn't feel he has any purpose or that there's any sort of meaning to it. He fills this void in his self in unhealthy ways — and the relationship impacted the most is the one between him and his daughter.

"They become estranged with one another. Holly doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but at the same time, she does.

Going home

"Norway House is my home community. It's where my dad was born and raised. It's this beautiful community in northern Manitoba. It's built along the shores of Little Playgreen Lake, which is this almost ethereal, gorgeous body of water. It's a traditional reserve and there's so much space and life. 

"Matt's father dies, and one of the things I talked about with my own dad before he died was about a trapline that he couldn't remember [the location of]. It was where he spent most of his time as a child growing up on the land. 

"We always talked about trying to find it. When he died, I had this dream of bringing him there and spreading his ashes. The Theory of Crows was a way of bringing him there for me.

They risk their lives to bring those ashes home, but also, I think, to find home for themselves too.

"[Matt and Holly] go on this journey to try and find this lost trapline. Matt's not equipped to really live on the land — he's never done it before — and Holly's just there to be with her dad. 

"She takes control of things in a lot of ways, because that's her personality. They risk their lives to bring those ashes home, but also, I think, to find home for themselves too."

Paying it forward

"[Being the editorial director of a new children's imprint dedicated to publishing Indigenous writers and illustrators at Penguin Random House Canada] allows me to bring more voices into the world that people need to hear. Adults and kids — mostly kids — that I want to bring into this imprint have really important things to say. This allows me to help them say it to more people.

Art saves lives. And if I can help her put that into a story that can be read by thousands of children, how many lives can we save by just telling them that, 'You matter, we need you here, and here's why?'

"There's this one young lady who is on Instagram who lives in an Inuit community. Every day she posts a reason to live —  in a lot of Indigenous communities across Canada, there's very high suicide rates. She's telling them we need you and this is a reason for you to to stay with us and I thought, 'That should be a book that kids can have.'

"Art saves lives. And if I can help her put that into a story that can be read by thousands of children, how many lives can we save by just telling them, 'You matter, we need you here, and here's why?' So those are the kind of people that I want to give a bigger platform to. 

"I'm really proud [the publisher] put that faith into me and I'm able to do work like that."

David A. Robertson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now