________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006


Idaa Trail: In the Steps of Our Ancestors.

Wendy Stephenson. Illustrated by Autumn Downey.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, 2006.
64 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88899-576-8.

Subject Headings:
Dogrib Indians-Juvenile literature.
Idaa Trail (N.W.T.)-Juvenile literature.
Northwest Territories-Description and travel-Juvenile literature.

Grades 2-4 / Ages 7-9.

Review by Danya David.

*** /4


“People used the trail for hundreds of years to get from Fort Rae to Fort Norman,” explained his mom. “They traveled by dog team in winter and birchbark canoe in summer. Your grandparents used to travel on that trail with their families when they were your age. Now they want to show you and your cousins the important places on the way.”


Evoking the rugged tranquility of Canada’s Northwest Territories in a transformative summer story, Idaa Trail guides the reader through a years-old journey in the footsteps of the Dogrib people and into the new terrain of Dogrib youth. Written with simplicity and reverence, this 64-page illustrated chapterbook is a valuable instructional tool which introduces young readers to the Dene Nation and to the Dogrib way of life.

     Idaa Trail tells the story of a unique canoe trip that retraces a trade route long-known to the Dogrib people. It is summer, and 11-year-old John and his cousins, Nora and Peter, paddle along this ancient route with their grandparents, Etsi and Etseh. Beautiful legends unfold as the group flows onward through the summer heat in their birchbark canoes. The navigators encounter many sites along the way, including the abandoned village of an important trading chief, a sacred gravesite, and other places at which historical events transpired. In effect, Etsi and Etseh become guides for future generations of Dogrib, connecting their kin to the richness of their ancestral roots by immersing them in what was not-so-long-ago the Dogrib way of life. Etsi and Etseh teach that not only must future generations hear and see, but they must also do and experience in order to ensure their people’s continued survival.

internal art

     Author Wendy Stephenson and illustrator Autumn Downey draw on the discoveries of a team of archeologists and elders as inspiration for this engaging fictionalized account. As Etsi and Etseh work hard to weave stories that shed light on heritage, Stephenson and Downey similarly aim to focus the reader on the vitality of respecting the ancient relationship of aboriginal peoples to land. Although on first glance the illustrations seem so realistic that they are bland, the reader does flow onward with the story. It becomes clear that the detailed watercolor illustrations are, in fact, appropriate because they work in harmony with the text, carrying the reader onward with a measured steady flow.

     Plot in Idaa Trail is shaped by the sites, places, and stories encountered along the way, establishing a linear succession of events. This structure is simple yet effective, allowing the story to focus on the beauty and magnitude of nature and the historical essence of the settings, rather than complicating the story with complex plot elements or character development. Characters are mere vehicles through which the nuances of the culture and richness of the land are transferred. Interestingly, with the exception of several moments of slight tension, there is no real conflict in the book. This, however, works. The canoe trip proves to be a brilliant platform for storytelling.

     Idaa Trail is an ideal supplement to curriculum material meant to teach children about Canada’s Aboriginal populations. It would be particularly successful as a classroom tool. The book has somewhat of a textbook feel, due perhaps to its rather sober cover; however, it is undoubtedly affecting as it pulls readers out of facts, statistics, and dates, and drops them into tangible times and places. The sporadic inclusion of Dogrib terms throughout the text is motivating, as are the additional annotations, the glossary, and the pronunciation guide at the end of the book.

     Idaa Trail is about connecting to land and thereby connecting to shared history. It is neither thrilling nor groundbreaking in content or style, but the message, nonetheless, is vital and clear: future generations must become active agents for the preservation and vitality of their heritage.


Danya David is completing her M.A. in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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