Within the Stillness

7 December 2011

Within the Stillness: One Family’s Winter on a Northern Trapline
by Keith Olsen
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by William Wardill
$16.95 ISBN 978–1–894431–61-3

This book encapsulates deeply etched memories of Keith Olsen, whose grandfather came to the United States from Denmark in 1910 at the age of thirteen. When he moved to Canada, he settled in the Big River district of Saskatchewan, where he married Anna Ethier in 1914. After the birth of two daughters, she became a victim of the 1918 influenza plague. The elder daughter, Florence, became the mother of James Edward Olsen, who was born out of wedlock in 1934. Florence Olsen married an English immigrant, Thomas Edward Nicholson, in 1937. After only nine years in the Nicholson family, James Olsen’s relationship with his stepfather became unendurable, and he set out on his own. He was twelve years old.

In the late summer of 1960, James Olsen, his wife (always identified as Mum), and their young sons Clarence and Keith went to Little Mahigan Lake for a winter on the trapline. What follows is a colloquial account of living off the land. Aside from a few purchased necessities, they ate what forest and lake provided: wild berries and meat of moose, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and bear.

The story reads like the hard existence of prairie homesteaders in an earlier time. The family had no modern conveniences. There was a wood stove, gasoline lantern, coal-oil lamps, candles, and a battery-powered radio. Everything else they needed they took from the land, forest and lake.

They had a team of horses and a sleigh. They had snowshoes. They built their own cabin. They had their own skills, ingenuity and boundless energy. They had neighbours with whom they shared a reverence for the land and resources near at hand. They sold their furs to the Red & White Store in Big River. The gill net which they tended under the lake ice produced another valuable harvest, which was sold to Waite Fisheries, also in Big River. They had a successful season.

In 1961, the isolation in which the Olsen family lived was disappearing in the land below the tree-line. In 2011, the deep understanding of the people north of the prairies for the places in which they live has not waned. Keith Olsen remembers. He remembers also with love and respect the tireless, caring woman called Mum.

How could two little boys disappear from school registers for a whole year without officialdom noticing? It appears that Mum was a Cree woman. Government officials forced Cree children to endure the dubious disciplines of the residential schools, but were not so concerned with the education of children of mixed blood. Nevertheless, Keith Olsen wrote, and Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing produced, a book which helps readers to understand who, why and where we are.


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