Back Track

Canadian Book Review Annual, July 2009

Harold Johnson is a Cree writer, lawyer, and trapper. In this, his second novel, the engaging story of four Cree brothers from northern Saskatchewan is set against a backdrop of traditional Cree mythology. Jimmy, the eldest brother, lives part of the year on his trapline, but is haunted by loneliness and vivid dreams. Charles is a struggling alcoholic who has recently found the will to live sober. Henry is a southern-educated lawyer working as a public defender on the northern Cree court circuit. And Edward is addicted to his work as a miner and the uncomplicated isolation it provides him. When Jimmy is bitten by a fox on the trapline and begins acting violently, his girlfriend Gladys and his three brothers fear that he may be becoming a Wetiko (cannibal).

Set in the northern hub-city of La Ronge and the surrounding wilderness, and centred on the crimes of Jimmy and the subsequent manhunt that ensues. Back Track shares certain (acknowledged) similarities with the real-life story of Albert Johnson, or the Mad Trapper of Rat River. But unlike the retellings of the Mad Trapper's story, Johnson's novel features a debate between mythic and medical explanations for Jimmy's behaviour, high-tech police tracking techniques combined with traditional Cree methods, and intriguing insight into the mind and actions of Jimmy, his family, and his community. When the high-tech methods of the RCMP fail to locate Jimmy, an elder is consulted: and as Jimmy's behaviour becomes more and more puzzling to his brothers and girlfriend, they too begin to search for answers and solutions in the old Cree ways and stories.

Part crime drama and part retelling of traditional Cree myth, this highly entertaining page-turner is enriched by Johnson's exploration of modern life and struggle in a northern community. — Brendan F.R. Edwards


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