Safiyya: In July, Hailey and I read Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, a dark, dystopian novel about a Canada which we are chillingly close to seeing in real life.
Content Warning: this review discusses the Indian residential schools, sexual violence, child abuse, and institutional racism.
The Marrow Thieves is set in Canada, about a hundred years in the future. Earth has been ravaged by diseases, earthquakes, rising sea levels, and wars for scarce resources. People have been experiencing a strange illness which affects their ability to dream, and eventually drives them to madness. Yet for some reason, this disease does not seem to affect people of Indigenous descent. As such, government officials in white vans have been taking Indigenous people away to “schools” and subjecting them to unspecified horrors, alleging it is for the good of humankind.
Frenchie, aka Francis, a sixteen-year-old boy of Métis descent, is on the run from government Recruiters in this rundown version of Ontario. Alone after his brother Mitch sacrificed himself, Frenchie joins a ragtag group of survivors making their way north, including:
- Miig, an older man and one of the group elders
- Minerva, another senior member, a gentle and sweet-natured elderly lady
- Chi-Boy, a seventeen-year-old boy
- Tree and Zheegwon, twelve-year-old twin boys
- Slopper, a nine-year-old boy
- Wab, an eighteen-year-old girl
- Riri, a little girl somewhere between five and seven
- Rose, a sixteen-year-old girl and the group’s newest addition
Together, these people create a foster family: protecting each other, passing on skills and knowledge, sharing stories, and holding true to their cultural heritage. Frenchie and his companions hope to escape the government’s reach in the far north, but they will first have to survive the wilderness, the government’s vicious Recruiters, their own past horrors, and betrayal.
Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to see it.
– Cherie Dimaline
As you might imagine, this book hit me like a gut punch. In our real world, we are dealing with cataclysmic effects of climate change, a widespread, mysterious disease that took out a huge portion of the global population, and the exposure of mass graves at the sites of former Indian residential schools. The Marrow Thieves was written in 2018, pre-pandemic, but it could not have been more prescient.
In our discussion of this book, Hailey pointed out that this book defies categorization. The story follows a teenage boy, but it does not follow the conventions of the YA category. It is a dystopia, but it draws on real, historical events as its background. It is incredibly accessible, a book that could be read by anyone of any age group or background, but it is also rich with symbolic meaning and layers of fascinating detail that could be analyzed for days.
I’m currently in the midst of an online class on Indigenous Canada, and I think that made a huge difference as far as being able to pick up on some of the deeper meanings and references that Dimaline wove into her story. For instance, here are some of the things that struck me on my first read-through:
- Oral Traditions: Dimaline very deliberately places a higher value on oral evidence over written words. For some context, certain Indigenous nations within Canada have a deep-rooted tradition of oral history and storytelling. This became a real challenge when various Indigenous peoples tried to establish their legal rights in court, because a hearsay story passed down through generations was considered less credible than a written document dating back several centuries. (Check out the Delgamuukw decision here and here for more information on that front.) But Dimaline flips the script in her novel. Oral narration is given a primacy and value through traditions like Story, whereas written words prove to be unreliable.
- The Role of Elders: Dimaline has no interest in restraining herself with YA conventions. The adult characters are as significant to the story as the teenagers, having just as much agency, value, and (without getting too spoilery) playing as central a role in the major plot events. Just as importantly, the teenage characters respect and admire their little group’s elders, valuing the well of knowledge and experience that they can provide.
- Real Traumas: Dimaline incorporates several past and current traumas faced by Indigenous people into her fictional world’s horrors. Residential schools, mass graves of children, resources stolen and stripped from Indigenous peoples, over-criminalization, gendered violence – each of these issues is reproduced within the world of the book. You cannot visit this world and then step back into our own, having had a nice feeling of escape; not when our own world has all the same horrors.
I could go on and on about The Marrow Thieves, but I will leave off with three more things for now. First, I alternated between reading a text version of the book and listening to the audiobook version. The latter experience was a fantastic way to really immerse myself into the oral storytelling tradition woven into the fabric of the story, so I would recommend that format for readers who’d enjoy that kind of experience. Second, Cherie Dimaline is releasing a sequel to the book later this year. If you are worried about starting an as-yet-incomplete series, in my opinion, the first book stands on its own well enough to satisfy the reader.
Finally, and this is a very important factor to consider — it was very difficult to read this book. In fact, there were a few times where I had to stop and set it aside before I could continue. Some people may find it too disturbing to read through The Marrow Thieves, and that is okay; you have to take care of your own mental health and comfort level. However, if you can handle it, you will find a brilliant, rewarding, rich text about family, and society, and the everyday dystopias that we do not question enough.
PS: As a disclaimer, neither of us are experts on Indigenous literature or on the Indigenous cultures of Canada. If you want a list of recommended Indigenous literature by more informed people, you can try here, or here , or here. I also highly recommend the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, established by Dr. Debbie Reese, which provides detailed discussions on the representation of Indigenous peoples in children’s literature; you can find it here.
If you want to learn a bit about some of the Indigenous cultures and history of Canada, there is a free course online through the University of Alberta, which you can check out here . You can also see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports on the residential schools and some of the horrors faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada here.