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A Boy And His Grandfather Visit Home 'On The Trapline'

May 15, 2021
Originally published on May 15, 2021 8:46 am

A little boy and his Moshom — his grandfather — are traveling north. They're going to the grandfather's community, and his trapline — a place where Indigenous people live off the land, hunting, fishing, and trapping.

On The Trapline is written by David A. Robertson, who is a member of Norway House Cree Nation, and inspired by a trip the author took with his late father.

"Up until he was nine years old, he lived mostly on the land," Robertson says. "And about three years ago, he asked me to take him up to his trapline one last time. And so we went together the following year and spent the day on the land together. And it was this homecoming. It was this feeling that we both belonged there together."

Tundra

At the trapline, Moshom shows the little boy where he used to live — the place where the family pitched their tent, where he chopped wood, the bush where he picked saskatoon berries, and the shore where he set traps for muskrats.

"I think it's important that people recognize that it's still a way of life to a lot of indigenous people," Roberston says. "And it's an important and vibrant way of life."

Robertson says he wrote On The Trapline to be a gentle book, one that helps to dispel stereotypes and myths about life in an Indigenous community, and to educate readers.

To that end, Robertson includes Swampy Cree words throughout the story — like Moshom for grandfather.

And on the page where Moshom tells the little boy about his chores, the reader learns that the word for "go outside" is wanawī.

Illustrations by Julie Flett / Tundra

On The Trapline is illustrated by Julie Flett, who is Swampy Cree and Red River Métis. Robertson and Flett have worked together before, on their 2016 picture book When We Were Alone.

And Flett was the only illustrator Robertson considered for this story.

"When I was writing it, I was picturing Julia's work and it helped inform, I think, the beauty of the story," Robertson says. "I didn't have a backup plan."

For both Robertson and Flett, On The Trapline became all the more meaningful because it was the last project that their fathers would ever see.

Illustrations by Julie Flett / Tundra

"Whenever I'm making a book, I always talk to my dad whenever I have a question about the land or anything that I might have not experienced directly," Flett says. "He's been a guide and a compass ... And while I was working on this project, my dad's health was declining, but he was still able to talk about some of his experience. And, yeah, he passed just before it was finished. "

Robertson was able to read the story to his father shortly before he died.

"He loved it," Robertson says.

Robertson and Flett say they hope this story honors their families, and their dads.

"I think there could have been a tendency for grief to creep into the story. And it didn't," Robertson says. "It is a book that isn't about that loss, but it's about that gift that our fathers gave us. It's a celebration of life that honors two really incredible people."

Samantha Balaban and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"On The Trapline" begins with a little boy and his Moshom, his grandfather, traveling north. They're going to his grandfather's community and his trapline, a place where Indigenous people live off the land, hunt, fish and trap.

DAVID ROBERTSON: And it's just the grandfather teaching the grandchild about life - life in the community, life on the land and the connection between the two.

SIMON: The book is written by David Robertson, who is Cree, and it's based on a trip that he took with his late father.

ROBERTSON: Up until he was 9 years old, he lived mostly on the land. And about three years ago, he asked me to take him up to his trapline one last time. He hadn't been there for 70 years, and I'd never been there before. And so we went together and spent the day on the land together. And it was this homecoming. It was this feeling that we both belong there together.

SIMON: In David Robertson's book, the little boy and his Moshom take a motorboat down a river. I see all kinds of things, the little boy says on their journey - beaver dams, eagles flying overhead and paintings on rocks. I see blue water turn to black. That's when Moshom's eyes light up. He points to a boulder by some thick trees. That's my trapline, he says.

ROBERTSON: In the middle of this clearing that's surrounded by all these beautiful trees and vegetation is this huge black boulder that was almost like a landmark that notified, you know, families that they had arrived to their home when they went to the trapline. It's this place where they set up tents and they covered them with spruce boughs and stayed there for a few months before branching off into other traplines in the bush that the families would live on until the water broke and they were able to, you know, bring their canoes back home. I think it's important that people recognize that it's still a way of life to a lot of Indigenous people, and it's an important and vibrant way of life.

JULIE FLETT: The illustrations in this book were made with pastels on paper and then digital collage.

SIMON: Julie Flett, who is Swampy Cree and Red River Metis, illustrated the story.

FLETT: And for me, land is always the starting point. So the landscape always sets the tone. From the color systems to the feel of the book overall, it's always a guide for me, or it has been up to this point.

SIMON: The land is depicted in lots of muted blues, dark greens and warm browns, with pops of bright red in a sweater or yellow socks on a clothesline. The illustrations are cozy, almost like a campfire. David Robertson and Julie Flett had worked together before, and he says she was really the only illustrator he considered for "On The Trapline."

ROBERTSON: When I was writing it, I was picturing Julie's work, and it helped inform, I think, the beauty of the story. And it's funny because with both books, "When We Were Alone" and "On The Trapline," initially she said for both books she didn't have time (laughter), which I understood because she's so in demand and she's so busy.

FLETT: Yeah. I mean, I didn't think I could fit it in. And then, you know, I read it, and it was about his dad, and I needed to do it. I adore his family and dad. And I thought, no, this is for his dad. I've got to fit this in somehow (laughter).

ROBERTSON: In a lot of ways, Julie's so good at what she does, I don't really have to tell her to do anything. You know, she just does this incredible work. And I don't think there's a lot of illustrative direction in the manuscript from me to her. You know, I think Julie was given some references of images from a trip I took with my dad.

FLETT: Yeah. I mean, through - a lot through pictures and video and just really, really looking a lot. Whenever I'm making a book, I always talk to my dad. Whenever I have a question about the land or anything that I might have not experienced directly, he's always been there. He's been a guide and a compass, and he's always so happy to share and connect on this. And I've learned so much about his experiences and our family and our stories. And while I was working on this project, my dad's health was declining, but he was still able to talk about some of his experience. And, yeah, he passed just before it was finished. And then I think it was a week later, and David's dad, so.

ROBERTSON: Yeah, it was the last story I wrote that my dad read. I actually read it to him. I'm pretty sure he saw very close to the finished art. And so it was just - I'm so grateful that he was able to read that book and see your work. He loved it. My dad was a man of few words, but when he spoke, you know, people listened, and it meant something. And I think it really meant a lot to him, too, that I did it with Julie because him and Julie, you know, really connected when they met. My dad sometimes called her his little daughter to me when we were talking.

FLETT: Yeah. And I feel the same and so connected to his beautiful family. And I wish we would've all come together, but maybe we did through the book, so (laughter).

ROBERTSON: I think there could've been a tendency for grief to creep into the story, and it didn't. I actually feel there's a lot of beauty. It is a book that isn't about that loss, but it's about that gift that our fathers gave us. It's a celebration of life that honors two really incredible people.

SIMON: David Robertson and his illustrator, Julie Flett, talking about their new book for young readers, "On The Trapline."

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM TYLER'S "HIGHWAY ANXIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.