The Marrow Thieves

I forget where I heard about The Marrow Thieves, which is a shame because I’d like to know what else this person recommends. Cherie Dimaline’s novel, set in the late 20th Century after the world has been destroyed by global warming, follows French, a Canadian Indigenous boy, as he runs from “Recruiters,” white people who harvest Indigenous people for their marrow. You see, only the Indigenous can dream any more, in a world utterly without hope, and the key to their dreams is in their marrow. It’s a high concept, and I would’ve appreciated a bit more world-building on that detail, but it ends up being a conceit to put pressure on the main character and his family as they run.

In the very beginning of the book, French is with his brother Mitch, who is “recruited” to serve in what is a sci-fi re-imagining of the infamous Canadian Indigenous schools. What I know about the historical schools is limited to the information in a children’s book I read, but they were basically centers of erasure: they erased the Indigenous’ culture, their language, and metaphorically, their dreams. The Canadian government has since apologized for ever using them, but Dimaline’s novel takes the cynical view that when life gets hard, the people in power are quick to forget their humanity.

French is found by a group led by Miigwans, the patriarch of a “family” of displaced Indigenous people. The rest of the novel follows them as they run North, trying to get away from the cities and the South where crime, ruin, and despair abound. The book is not particularly hopeful in the short term; it never shies away from how hard the main characters’ lives will be. However, they take the long view, knowing that their people have survived through more, and will continue to survive.

The real gem of the novel, to me, was the relationships of the characters. So often, Indigenous people are portrayed as stereotypes in fiction, or at least as some Others that aren’t truly knowable to the main characters. The Marrow Thieves turns that trope on its head: all of the characters are Indigenous, and they’re all fully realized human beings with their own complicated relationships to one another (of course they are!). I feel strange writing this out, because it’s obvious that everyone is people once you say it, but the fact is that books featuring Indigenous main characters are not really in the mainstream, and that enables their further marginalization.

The Marrow Thieves is a really well-written book with great characters who happen to be Indigenous, though now that I write that I realize it’s not right either. These characters are deeply tied to who they are, to their senses of self and community, and to the traditions they’ve lost. French talks about hoarding up the small snatches of “the Language” Miigwans and the other elder, Minerva, speak to the group. Their main issue isn’t that the world is ending, but rather that they are being routinely hunted and bled like animals by white people, because of who they are. These characters don’t just happen to be Indigenous, and to say so is to risk colorblindness. They are completely themselves, and the novel forces the reader to recognize that. That’s the true power of Dimaline’s novel. I hope to read more like it soon.