The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Published September 1, 2017
The market is saturated with dystopian YA novels these days and, like many readers, I’m a little fatigued by the genre, yet Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning The Marrow Thieves is an important and engaging addition to the canon. A rare example of an #ownvoices indigenous author writing speculative fiction, The Marrow Thieves details the hardships faced by characters as they are hunted further and further north with limited resources and fewer people they can trust. This poignant exploration of the struggle to retain culture, oral storytelling tradition, and language against all odds should be read and studied by all young Canadians
Sadly the premise behind this dystopia is not so out there considering Canada’s treatment of indigenous people over the years. In the wake of a world decimated by global warming, where the surviving people have lost the ability to dream, the government turns to its shameful past and revives the residential school system that stripped First Nations members of their language, culture, and families. In a darker twist, white people known as Recruiters capture Indigenous peoples, transport them to these schools, and then harvest their bone marrow, which is used as a remedy for dreams. First Nations members are literally and horrifically reduced to a commodity.
‘Story’, a nightly oral storytelling ritual in which older kids and adults in Frenchie’s found family band gather to hear and remember aspects of their culture and history, fleshes out how the world came to be this way. It’s an ingenious way for Dimaline to both preserve preserve indigenous culture in-story and to deliver exposition in a way that feels organic.
Dimaline’s writing style is lyrical at times, befitting oral storytelling tradition, but also realistic about the way the novel’s largely teenage cast interact with one another. Stray words of The Language (indigenous languages that the younger generation don’t speak) dropped in-text are hoarded and repeated by Frenchie, who views them with an awed regard.
Unlike many YA dystopias, this is a character-driven book where the emphasis is on found family and survival rather than trying to change the world. I loved that the oldest and youngest characters, who could be viewed as a burden on the band’s survival, are actually the beating heart of French’s group. I was invested in the characters, interested in their backstories, and I loved most of the relationships, familial, platonic, and romantic.
Protagonist French (given name Francis), a 16-year-old Métis boy, is believably teenage. Even when there are bigger things at stake he experiences petty jealousy, comparing himself physically to other First Nations characters who he thinks may have caught the eye of Rose, the girl he’s falling in love with. Big-hearted and concerned with the survival of everyone in his band, from the youngest Ri to not-all-there Elder Minerva, he holds a certain survivor’s guilt about being the only member of his immediate family to not be taken by the Recruiters.
Because this is YA, there’s a love interest. Rose does at least get some depth; she’s a dissenting voice who questions the band’s path and wants to take immediate action, but mostly we see her through French’s eyes. A lot is made of her physical beauty, her curls, and round cheeks, and dark skin, and I wound up wishing she’d been fleshed out more.
My favourite character though, was Miigwans. Middle-aged and the leader of the band, he grieves the traumatic loss of his husband, Isaac, to the schools. I love that The Marrow Thieves is not only diverse in terms of representing different First Nations cultures, but that it also features a gay character!
The Marrow Thieves definitely works on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Dimaline handwaves explanations for things in a way that feels more appropriate for a work of magic realism, but nothing in the book lends itself to that genre. It’s a little disconcerting in a book that is otherwise to grounded. The author also has a bad habit of overusing end of chapter foreshadowing in a clunky, unsubtle way that I found irritating:
“neither of us could imagine that everything would change in just a few hours”
“I had no way of knowing that things would shift again”
“we didn’t know that he was an animal we had yet to imagine could exist”
You’ve hooked us, just tell the story!
Besides these minor complaints though, I found The Marrow Thieves to be a thought-provoking book about storytelling, language, and how the loss of it removes us from our roots, and love of all kinds. It also has one of the better endings out there. Beautifully rendered through thoughtful, lyrical prose, The Marrow Thieves ends on a hopeful note that lets us know that all is not lost.