Written by Serge Desrosiers
We spoke with author Katherena Vermette and illustrator Scott B. Henderson about what it takes to bring history alive in a book like Road Allowance Era. Coming out at the end of April, the fourth and final entry in the A Girl Called Echo series follows a Métis teenager gifted with the power to travel through time, and witness firsthand the events that shaped her people.
Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty 1 territory, the heart of the Métis Nation, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her first book, North End Love Songs (The Muses Company) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. Her National Film Board documentary, this river, won the 2017 Canadian Screen Award for Best Short, and her novel, The Break (House of Anansi), won the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia, and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
- Why was Road Allowance Era an important story to add to the A Girl Called Echo series?
Katherena: I really wanted to bring the story home to the present day. We started in Volume 1 with the Pemmican Wars (1812-1817) which is regarded as the beginning of Métis nationhood. I wanted to make sure and take all these historical events and connect them to the present, to show how we have been, and still very much are, affected by them.
- What methods did you use for your research of the Road Allowance period?
Katherena: Lots of texts. Recorded stories. Some threads of family stories. One of the benefits of getting closer to the present day is an ever-increasing amount of documented testimony and recorded memories. I loved being able to know these stories from lived experiences and not just from historical data. Also, Jean Teillet’s phenomenal book, The North-West Is Our Mother, came out at just the right time for me and the Echo series. I have used it so much over the last two books.
- What did you enjoy most about writing Echo as a character?
Katherena: I liked being able to write a shy girl, a quiet girl. Echo doesn’t have that much to say, but she is still such a thinking, feeling, active person. I loved that she was shown this way. That she was drawn so beautifully by Scott.
- Without revealing too much of the story, how has Echo’s journey through the four volumes prepared her for the end of the series?
Katherena: Everything is learning. Everything she’s seen is going with her into the future. [The A Girl Called Echo series is] a pretty traditional quest narrative. I like to think of it as an origin story. Echo is becoming a superhero.
Scott B. Henderson (he/him/his) is author/illustrator of the sci-fi/fantasy comic, The Chronicles of Era and has illustrated select titles in the Tales From Big Spirit series, the graphic novel series The Reckoner Rises, A Girl Called Echo, and 7 Generations, select stories in This Place: 150 Years Retold, Fire Starters (an AIYLA Honor Book), and Eisner-award nominee, A Blanket of Butterflies. In 2016, he was the recipient of the C4 Central Canada Comic Con Storyteller Award.
- Your illustrations in Road Allowance Era are so immersive; it truly feels like you’re stepping back through time. What elements of your illustrations create that effect and how are they produced?
Scott: I think it’s a combination of using as much reference as possible and my less stylized art style, but also a big part is Donovan Yaciuk’s colours. Without that, the monotonous, muted feeling in the present day for Echo, and the vibrancy and connection she gets travelling backwards through her history wouldn’t have been as effective.
- What challenges did you overcome in adjusting to the various eras throughout the A Girl Called Echo series?
Scott: Some challenges had a lot to do with available references. As we travelled through time, there were often more and more resources for landscape, wardrobe, architecture and so on. That being said, sometimes there is reference for the time period–say end of 18th century fashion–but, was that relevant for the Canadian Prairies?
Another challenge throughout the four volumes was that, while I knew generally what each book was about historically, I didn’t always know what that would mean for Echo in the present day. What or how was her relationship with her mother going to evolve? What of her teachers or friends like Micah? For consistency, I tried to keep her look the same–those distinctive shirts, or her jean jacket, but it wasn’t always practical when she was transported into winter climates. I had to be flexible to adjust to those changes from book to book.
- How did you approach the research for Road Allowance Era?
Scott: Road Allowance Era was a bit different [from the rest of the series], as COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to do research, or go to libraries to find books. I had to work with more “remote reference” than usual. Luckily, the era allowed for a lot of available references despite the lockdowns.
- How do you feel your work or process has changed as a result of illustrating the A Girl Called Echo series?
Scott: I’ve tried to use as much reference as possible for people and anatomy. Characters look more natural when referring to photos (a LOT of selfies in most cases) for angles, gestures, and anatomy. For A Girl Called Echo, I also opted to do less rendering of the art–less hatching or cross hatching and that sort of shading. This allowed Donovan (the colourist) to really make the colours jump out. My art is really incomplete without his stunning work.
To hear more from Katherena Vermette on the series, listen to her CBC interview here.
You can pre-order Road Allowance Era, and purchase the entire A Girl Called Echo series here.