The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline has been marketed as dystopian—which it is, taking place in a future Canada ravaged by global warming where people have lost the ability to dream—but I found it to be just as much, if not more, of a coming-of-age story. Our protagonist is sixteen-year-old Frenchie, aka French or Francis, a Métis* boy. It was discovered that the marrow of Natives could give back the ability to dream to the dreamless, and as a result Natives have been hunted and killed for their marrow. This is the fate of both of Frenchie’s parents and his older brother. Frenchie has joined a group of survivors on the run, consisting of leader Miig, elder Minerva, love interest Rose, Riri the youngest, plus Chi-Boy, Wab, Tree, Zheegwon, and Slopper. Over the course of the story, we watch Frenchie grow and make difficult decisions in order to survive and protect his loved ones.
Although it takes place in a fictional dystopian future, much of the book is inspired by—and is commentary on—the past. Natives are being stolen and taken to buildings called Schools, after Residential Schools, a very dark part of Canada’s history. Issues include families being separated, the loss of culture and language, and straight-up genocide. All issues are unfortunately a part of the history of Canada’s native population. As my high school social studies teacher used to say, it is important to study and remember the worst of Canada so we can make sure history does not repeat itself.
But for dealing with such ugly things, Dimaline manages to create a soft beauty through her prose. Even when describing desolate abandoned towns or a field of poisoned grey muck which used to be one of the Great Lakes, there was an eerie but complete sense of atmosphere. The world in The Marrow Thieves is richly painted, allowing the mood to creep in through the woods in which Frenchie and his patchwork family find themselves.
“The smell from the lake here was nauseating. Once this was a popular city, being right on the water. Now this lake, like all the industry-plundered Great Lakes, was poison, and a tall fence blocked it off from the overgrown streets. We hadn’t been here more than a day, so the smell was pungent for us. We breathed into bandanas and built shelter from the stench with plywood and a tarp.”—from the chapter “Frenchie’s Coming-To Story”
Though the main story is told from sixteen-year-old Frenchie’s point of view as he and his second family avoid Recruiters, flashback stories round out the world Dimaline has created in the form of “Coming-To Stories”, which are the stories of how each member of the group came to be in the group. These often tell us what they used to have before the Recruiters and the Schools, and more importantly, who they used to have. It was a good way of giving the dystopian wasteland a history, a timeline for readers to follow.
And while the novel isn’t a light-hearted book by any means, Demaline delivers an overall message of hope. There is delight and celebration for the bits of nature found intact, or the possibility of new life. Even through destruction and loss, there is always the promise of the future, and the resilience of those left behind.
“It was Chi-Boy who answered, out of character. ‘Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to live it.'” —from the chapter “Rogarou Comes Hunting”
This is a book I think everyone should read. Dimaline delivers a touching novel full of history and hope, darkness and the light that shines brighter for it. The Marrow Thieves feels personal, and is absolutely beautifully told. I cannot recommend it enough.
*Canada’s Métis are descended from the children of French settlers and Natives who found themselves rejected by both white settlers and natives for being mixed, and as a result created their own community. The literal translation is something along the lines of “mongrel”, “half-breed” or “crossbreed”. I’m kind of fascinated by this history, being something of a “half-breed” myself.
While exceedingly painful, it is possible to extract marrow from a person without killing them. It is necessary to ignore this when reading, because that is not the point. Dimaline created a world which works the way it does in order for her to best deliver the story, and I wouldn’t have her change a thing.