My enjoyment of post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction is waning heavily these days. In particular, I’ve never been a fan of The Road–style stories of survival of small groups. So The Marrow Thieves was fighting an uphill battle, yet Cherie Dimaline manages to make me appreciate the intensity of the experience.
Frenchie is a 15-year-old Indigenous (Anishnaabe, I think?) boy who, after losing his immediate family, falls in with another group of Indigenous survivors on the run. In this near-future narrative (about sixty years out, I think), Dimaline recapitulates the horrors of colonialism and residential schools through a new lens: no one except Indigenous people can dream. So, non-Indigenous people have set up new “schools,” and bands of Recruiters roam the countryside looking for Indigenous fugitives they can capture to harvest the bone marrow in which dreaming resides. Rather than focusing on the wider issues of th world, however, Dimaline confines herself mostly to the personal stories of Frenchie and his companions, tracing how each of them came to by where they are now, punctuated by the events of life on the road.
This is not a long book, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you’re expecting Dimaline to provide a lot of backstory, to explore why a lot of humanity has lost the ability to dream, etc., then you will be disappointed. The Marrow Thieves provides a slice-of-life look at a specific moment in time in this possible future—it is someone’s dream of what could be, one might say. Would I love to learn more about the world and the origins of its reorganization? Sure. But it’s immaterial to the story itself, for this is the story of colonization repackaged and retold, part allegory and part prediction.
To use Indigenous people in the way depicted herein is not all that strange or differnt from how Indigenous peoples have been used by Europeans for centuries. Slavery, economic exploitation, sterilization, residential schools … so many forms of genocide, all of which come down to the need for power and control. Even now, Canada exploits Indigenous bodies and stolen land for the sake of jobs, for the sake of oil. So while we may not have the means to extract dreams via bone marrow today, if we did and it was the only way of regaining dreaming, would we? Absolutely, no question about it.
Dimaline inextricably links dreaming to language in ways I don’t want to examine too closely to avoid spoilers. Nevertheless, this is an important dimension of the book, considering how close to extirpation many Indigenous languages have come. It’s a big deal in The Marrow Thieves that Minerva speaks “the Language,” as Frenchie calls it; he is chagrined and envious and wishes he could speak it himself. In this book, dreaming in the Language exists a level above even speaking the Language out loud. While language may or may not shape our reality, it seems likely it shapes our dreams. Thus, Dimaline asks us to consider how the languages we speak shape the realities we create in the worlds of our dreams.
There is the usual post-apocalyptic survival stuff here. A fair amount of violence, especially violence against women. I can’t say I enjoyed the romantic subplot, with a very hasty love triangle between Frenchie, a girl, and another boy. (Though I will happily report that the book is far from heteronormative! I’m probably mean for saying this, but I found the reunion at th end, as sanguine as it was, to be a bit conrived for my tastes.) As far as narrators go, Frenchie is ok: his youth invites an exuberance that, even when tempered with the experiences he has so far endured, is a far cry from the weariness of an older person in this milieu. However, his excitability is also a little much at times. Dimaline asks us to watch him grow and age as he must shoulder more burdens of leadership and hard decisions, yet in the brief time we know him, that growth doesn’t seem as evident as it could be.
The Marrow Thieves is intense and powerful in many ways. It’s far from perfect, but it has an enjoyable structure and cadence to it, with distinctive characters and a thoughtful story. I would recommend it in the same way I recommend the similarly post-apocalyptic Moon of the Crusted Snow: a novel worth reading and worth enjoying, even though I perhaps didn’t enjoy it quite as much as you could.