After several novels, adult and young adult, and a children’s book for which he won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2017, David Robertson has written a memoir. This current work recently received accolades, the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award and the Alexander Kennedy Ibister Award for Nonfiction at the 2021 Manitoba Book Awards.
The book opens with the author and his father, Don, sitting in a café, one of many the two men will visit to have their talks. Don expresses his desire to return to Black Water, to the trapline where he trapped, fished and hunted as a boy. The author agrees and so begins a journey of discovery and reconciliation for both men.
The author is the son of a Cree father and a mother of Scottish, Irish and English descent. He grew up in Winnipeg with his parents and two siblings, and no questions were asked about his background until he was in his teens. When asked if he was Indigenous, Robertson “…denied it. I had no desire to be Indigenous because everything I’d learned about Indigenous People during my formative years was negative.” (12) The author was also separated from his father for a decade and his absences would add to the disconnection from his Indigenous roots. There is a heartrending scene in the book where Robertson is at the window of his parents’ house watching his father leave. The reader can sense the boy’s anguish.
Robertson talks about his father’s family, about being on the land in the outdoors, being part of the community, trapping. The family, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, all worked together. It was important because the work was necessary to the family’s survival. Robertson’s father was considered an adult at nine years of age having his own trapline as he learned to obtain food for the family. This way of life disappeared with the Federal government’s introduction of the Family Allowance. One of the stipulations that came with the benefit was that families must have a permanent address. A trapline was not a permanent address. The elder Robertson goes on to explain; “what it did was break up traplines for the families.” (101) A tradition fell away. This new aid interrupted the flow of family life and brought an unwanted domesticity to a free people. And what the Government of Canada thought was beneficial proved unfortunate for a way of life.
Returning to the land, to Black Water, the author has a “feeling of familiarity.” (25) He learns from an Elder that this is blood memory and whether it is placing a foot on the land or sensing fellowship to a place, blood memory is a part of the Indigenous spirit and is always with the people. The sense of place is not only a physical setting but involves an emotional one relating to the heart—the blood. It becomes of sense of solidity that one ends up saying, ‘this is where I belong,’ to these people, to this culture. It is this place, Black Water, where Robertson realizes the story that his father tells is vital to his legacy.
Robertson is passionate about telling the story of his roots. His chronicle about growing up, the story of the separation from his father then their finding a closeness once again, is both poignant and tender. He discusses his past and his fight with anxiety attacks matter-of-factly without losing the thread of the story, that of finding out who he is.
The book is conversational as if the reader is sitting with the author and his father in the café or in the plane or on the land as he weaves his story of loss, discovery and love. The book’s recounting of a young man’s search for his heritage, which includes the lack of respect of a people long harangued and discriminated against, is one that resonates. Once you pick up this book you will find it hard to put down.
Back Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory
By David A. Robertson
Harper Publishers Ltd., 2020, 274pp, 32.99
ISBN 978-1-4434-5776-7 (paperback)
Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.