The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline comes with high praise from a number positive reviews, and awards such as the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature (Text) and being shortlisted for CBC Canada Reads 2018. After so much industry praise, and being a fan of young adult literature, I definitely wanted to read it. But I had some reservations.
First, I’ve read a lot of dystopian literature, and have been feeling a bit burnt out. The problems are increasingly the same, and the author often feels the need to ‘save’ the world. Second, after reading the synopsis, I didn’t have this burning desire to find out the Why and How of it. But I also had a strong fear of missing out on the conversations happening around the book, so I nabbed a library copy.
Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The Indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands. For now, survival means staying hidden—but what they don’t know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.
From the publisher, Dancing Cat Books (an imprint of Cormorant Books)
To start off, yes, I enjoyed The Marrow Thieves. And yes, I would recommend it to others interested. However, some of my reservations were substantiated and others were utterly unfounded.
To begin, the setting is in the future, but it is not traditional sci-fi, and I would hesitate to call it dystopian. It’s just too close to home—both chronologically and historically—to use such terms. I think “speculative fiction” better encompasses The Marrow Thieves, as it takes place in the future and contains elements of dystopian, supernatural, and scientific literature.
My issue with authors trying to ‘save’ their dystopian worlds was an unnecessary concern in this case. Cherie Dimaline focuses on the characters at the heart of her story; the narrative drives home the loss of culture, abuse, and murder they have faced as a minority population. The characters in The Marrow Thieves are not tasked as the capital-H ‘Heroes’ of the story and expected to cure the world; they are simply seeking a way to live, love, and find hope. As a non-Indigenous reader, to see those parallels to the current world, this depiction hit me hard. There were a number of references to characters—such as Frenchie’s mom—who didn’t have the will to go on because of all the systemic abuse they’ve faced. But the book is not all doom and gloom; the underlying message is hope. The story takes place over five years, beginning when French (his given name is Francis) is 11 years old. There are tender moments, cute moments, and fun moments as the characters grow into teenagers, learn new skills to survive, and share traditional knowledge of their cultural history.
There are deliberate parallels to the Residential School system in Canada, which operated for more than 100 years during the 1800-1900s (the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996). In a work of fiction for young people, I can see why Dimaline chose this comparison. But as an adult reader, the parallels felt almost too overt. Perhaps if they’d been called clinics instead of schools in the novel it wouldn’t have felt so heavy-handed. Although, on the other hand, I recognize that heavy-handedness can be necessary when there are still so many prejudices in Canadian society. I’m also a bit ashamed to admit that the comparison made me feel a bit numb (as a reader), but I’d attribute this to my reading too many reviews praising the sobering comparison, so it wasn’t as startling.
I’m familiar with the names of a number of Indigenous nations, but I’m not familiar with individual customs and traditions. I really enjoyed how Dimaline blended the references, concepts, and knowledge of many different nations including using Cree language and seeing references to Anishinaabe or Metis customs. There was also emphasis placed on how much has been lost—through the death (murder) of Indigenous people and customs, the intentional displacement of communities, and the restrictions forced upon them—ever since white settlers arrived on these lands.
I think what I enjoyed most about the Indigenous elements was that I didn‘t know—I read as a way to learn and open my eyes to other ways of life. Even though The Marrow Thieves is a post-apocalyptic fictional world, there were more than enough similarities to present-day Canada that the reader is likely to come away from this book with a very strong message.
I did have a difficult time getting into the first few chapters; I wasn’t really pulled in straight away. But I’m okay with books that take a while to get going, so I persevered. In those first few chapters, I had trouble caring about the Why and How of the situation because Frenchie didn’t seem to have much of a trajectory. I understood the survival aspect, but in the first few pages we learn how he’s lost his father, mother, and now his older brother, so his will to go on is flagging. I did eventually come to care about the outcome of the characters, particularly as we learned the backstory for Miigwans, Wab, Rose, and Minerva.
When I felt most connected to Frenchie was when he depicted raw general emotions (or just teenage emotions) that I could relate to, such as jealousy, fear of losing something or someone, the fear of his love not being returned, etc. Reflecting back on this, I think that my personal experiences (not being Indigenous or having generational trauma as a discernible part of my upbringing) definitely affected how I identified with the characters. But that’s actually a good thing. Because there are more than enough books out there in which I can see myself and my culture reflected in a positive light, with hope, courage, and strength. But there have been very few books that also reflect Indigenous people, youth particularly, in this way—a positive portrayal of hope and courage and strength. So I can/need to/will own my feelings of not identifying with the characters’ situations and upbringing. And it gives me hope about the future of Canada and Canadian literature that a book like The Marrow Thieves has gotten so much attention and accolades. A book like this also opens up a dialogue for young readers to talk about systemic racism and Indigenous issues. We—as readers, as Canadians, as settlers—need to read about different stories and experiences, even if they’re fictionalized. Because these stories come from truth and painful experiences that need to be acknowledged and heard.