The Theory of Crows
David A. Robertson
Harper Perennial, September 2022
Isolation is a familiar feeling for many people. It has become easy to retreat into ourselves as the world around us gets thrown into some seemingly new chaotic event each week. It’s one of the reasons David A. Robertson’s latest book, The Theory of Crows, hits so hard. It is a story about feeling broken and trying to find a way to heal during times of loss.
The Theory of Crows tells the story of an Indigenous family living in Winnipeg. Matthew and Holly, a father and his teenage daughter, are drifting apart, but when personal tragedy strikes, the pair travel to Matthew’s home in Norway House Cree Nation to find the family’s long forgotten trapline and some level of understanding along the way.
Early on Holly asks, “Can two broken people really fix their own relationship unless they’ve fixed themselves?” This line is the core of the story, and Robertson approaches it with compassion and honesty, looking at both the specific issues the McIvor family faces and broader issues facing Indigenous people today.
These ideas are not new territory for Robertson, and his experience comes through as he guides the reader through sensitive themes. To say Robertson, the two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner and soon-to-be editor of the Indigenous-led and focused publisher Tundra Books, is a powerhouse of Canadian writing would be an understatement. Robertson has authored twenty-five works from graphic novels to children’s books, all influenced by his heritage as a member of Norway House Cree Nation.
In many ways, The Theory of Crows feels like a spiritual partner to Robertson’s 2020 memoir, Black Water. Both works examine the impact of disconnection from culture and how a parent’s experience can inform one’s own life, and both highlight Robertson’s belief in the land’s ability to heal. “It was an exploration of my own journey,” said Robertson in an interview with Heather Majaury. “And trying to understand what I went through, and to heal from it.”
Robertson has been open about his own struggles with mental health, and it is easy to see him in the protagonists, Holly and Matthew. Both characters grapple with depression, anxiety, panic disorders, and grief in many forms, and Robertson creates a distinct rhythm as he navigates these topics.
Robertson’s writing has a lyrical style as Matthew goes over details in the world around him, looking for meaning and a sense of fulfillment. Robertson often says music helped saved his own life, and his belief in its importance is clear throughout the story.
The Theory of Crows has music in its narrative, and Matthew and Holly find connection through music. “We are too cautious / We are losing time / And hope / And forking paths,” (259) Holly’s poetry reads when Matthew sneaks a glance at it, illuminating their shared struggle. The letters from Matthew to his daughter interspersed throughout the book act like the chorus of a song, anchoring the story and providing a window into the brokenness inside of the characters.
If there is an issue to find with the book, it’s the pacing. Broken into two parts, it feels like two different stories. One part a family drama, the other an adventure story. Both are engaging and meaningful but rushed in places. Reaching the last fifty pages, it became tough not to wonder if the story might’ve benefited from a few more chapters. It would have been nice to sit with the characters on the land and let the story breathe.
Holly and Matthew feel like people you might bump into walking down the street. It’s part of why The Theory of Crows has reached such a broad audience. The story is about reconnecting with the land and the struggles Indigenous peoples face today, but also how isolation and grief affect us and those around us. Readers who’ve felt lonely will find some catharsis in watching Matthew and Holly heal after their world breaks apart.
Robertson’s novel skillfully brings these complex concepts together in a compassionate, understandable, and deeply human way. The Theory of Crows, like the rest of Robertson’s work, is a story about what it means to be an Indigenous person today. It’s also a story depicting grief, depression, and anxiety. In an uncertain world, when so many of us feel a little tired and broken, The Theory of Crows is a balm.