This fast-moving, dystopian novel with Indigenous protagonists is the book every Canadian should read this year, a fact established on CBC Canada Reads — even though the book didn’t win
The Marrow Thieves didn’t win this year’s CBC Canada Reads debates, but I believe it should have. I was thoroughly convinced by Jully Black’s defense of the book on the annual book battle, and reading it was a confirmation that it’s a timely and important contribution to Canadian culture right now.
Telling the story of group of Indigenous nomads who are on the run in a future society beset by climate change, The Marrow Thieves creates a dystopian world in which people have lost the ability to dream and Indigenous people are hunted for their bone marrow because it’s believed to be the remedy.
The story is a metaphor for Canada’s history of residential schools, a fact the book’s author has openly stated. Setting the book in the future was her way of reaching past the guilt non-Indigenous people might feel when looking at the country’s colonial history.
“I wanted to reach non-Indigenous readers at an age where the book could change their view of Indigenous people,” Dimaline told CBC Books. “I set it in the future so that those barriers of guilt weren’t thrown up, and instead they can say, ‘Well, this can’t happen. We need to make sure it doesn’t happen.'”
The story centres around Frenchie, a 16-year-old Métis teenager who has been separated from his birth family. To avoid the fate of being captured and put in an institution where his bone marrow can be harvested, Frenchie’s on the move through the northern Ontario landscape with a group of Indigenous people — seven kids and two elders — who have become his family.
Then, a new person named Rose joins the pseudo-family. Frenchie immediately admits he’s glad they’re not blood related. “Thank God,” the book reads, “because she made me feel like I needed to be a better person just through her existing. And even as the dark adventure tale unfolds in the foreground, a love story pulses with teenaged hormones.
Since he’s one of the older, stronger members, Frenchie takes on the role of protector. They survive by hunting, travelling at night, and showing aggression to other groups of nomads they happen to come across.
But when one of the group’s youngest members is taken by recruiters on the hunt for Indigenous DNA material, Frenchie takes it as a personal failure. He won’t let his adopted family down the next time, he promises himself.
An important literary achievement
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked at the history of residential schools in Canada and in 2017, it outlined 94 Calls to Action designed to move the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians forward
The Commission’s report and the calls to action are important reading for Canadians.
But the reading shouldn’t stop there. I believe fictional stories are an even more powerful way to cultivate empathy and create meaningful dialogue than facts. That’s why I believe The Marrow Thieves should be required reading for Canadians of all ages.
Dystopian and difficult
I can’t say I enjoyed reading this book. And I can’t say it was hard to put down. In fact, it was easy to put down. I did not like the feelings I was having while reading.
And that’s precisely the point. As a white Canadian, I have the privilege of putting down this novel and going back to my life. But for Indigenous people, the option of ignoring Canada’s policies of cultural genocide does not exist. They live with the results of those policies every day.
Frenchie’s narration, which is funny and sweet despite the chaotic world he lives in, makes it possible to keep reading. He’s a kid I want to know, he’s a person I want to succeed.
A hopeful ending
Dimaline has said she hopes her book leaves people with a sense of hope.
“I think the light through the bleakness in this dystopia is the fact that our community still exists,” she told CBC Books. ” The dreams, of course, symbolize hope, the hope that we’ve always had as Indigenous people. I wanted the youth to see that hope and survival in a future context.”
And the ending of The Marrow Thieves does suggest that hope. Frenchie and the others connect with another band of rebels.
“They’re allies, real allies. They put their lives on the line,” says one character as they try to assess how friendly they should become with this band of people, some of whom seem to be West Indian, and others who have pale skin.
Turns out one of the gang is a long-lost husband of Frenchie’s group’s elder, Miigwans. It’s a moment of reunification that was previously unimaginable, and the leaves the reader to believe that justice may come at some point in the future.
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