On the Trapline – written by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
Tundra Books, 2021
In David A. Robertson and Julie Flett’s hauntingly beautiful new book, a boy and his grandfather renew their connection to one another and to the past which they share. Robertson, prolific author and member of the Norway House Cree Nation, and accomplished artist Flett, of the Swampy Cree and Red River Métis, have created a dialogue between generations. The reader is invited to join in, as author and illustrator offer insights into the specific values of the Cree as well as the universal bond between grandparents and grandchildren (see examples from children’s literature here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).
Everything about the book demands a careful and attentive pace of reading. From the dominant colors of blue and grey accented by brighter red, to the boy’s faithful rendition of his conversations with Moshom (grandfather), a picture unfolds of two contrasting ways of life. But the boy does not only observe the differences, he analyzes them, noting surprising similarities as well as clear divergences between the city where he lives and his grandfather’s life “in the north…Kīwētinohk.” While the space between houses seems vast, the space between family members sharing a room (image) is smaller than he could have imagined: “I guess some things are bunched up in the north.”
Moshom defines the trapline of the book’s title as a place “…where people hunt animals and live off the land.” Although central to the community’s life, it is an entry point to other truths that he shares with his grandson about the history of their people. Talking about the school he attended as a child, Moshom reveals that, although he has his friends spoke Cree, they were forced to communicate exclusively in English while in school. When his grandson asks with evident concern if they still were able to speak Cree, Moshom answers that “My friends and I snuck into the bush so we could speak our language.” Even without any explicit elaboration of this injustice or the pain it must have caused, the boy understands what happened, using both his grandfather’s words and geographic setting to recreate the past: “We look at the birch trees and pine trees and all the long grass. I imagine Moshom and his friends speaking Cree in there.”
It is difficult to capture the totality of this book in a brief review, because the sequence of understated words and almost dream-like pictures operate as a seamless whole. Out in a motorboat together, the boy and his grandfather continue to become closer. Moshom emphasizes the slow tempo and natural beauty of his life in the past. As on every page of the book, his meditative comments end with the boy noting the meaning of key words in his grandfather’s Cree language. Robertson leaves some ambiguity about the speaker, or thinker, of these words. They may be new to the boy, or they may have been familiar before they were reinforced on this visit to his grandfather. Unless the reader is a native speaker of Swampy Cree languages, they are likely new to her. The exquisite subtlety of their impact, reinforcing what the boy is learning and the deep love of grandfather and grandson for one another, is at the core of this wonderful story. Moving notes from the author and illustrator, and a list of Swampy Cree words, conclude the book.