Don’t Ask Forever
The Marrow Thieves
By Cherie Dimaline
Cherie Dimaline’s 2017 The Marrow Thieves is a near-future science fiction novel.
The government of Canada’s Department of Oneirology has reopened the residential schools, this time as medical processing centres. First Nations people go in. Dreams and corpses come out. All that’s needed is suitable donors, people like Frenchy and his Anishnaabe kin.
Having survived climate change (even though half the population is dead and civilian government has collapsed) North American survivors find that rebuilding the economy is complicated by a toxic environment and a dearth of workers. Worse yet: most of the survivors have lost the ability to dream. Extended non-dreaming results in madness and death. Population collapse continues.
Having noted that First Nations people are immune to this malady, innovative scientists have created a method by which the ability to dream can be transferred from First Nations people to others. An unavoidable side-effect is the horrific death of the donor. This is a sacrifice the majority are not only willing to make. They’re positively enthusiastic about it.
Thanks to the above, young Frenchy’s life to date has been a series of losses. His father left to plead with the government to spare First Nations people from terrible deaths. He never returned. Frenchy and his brother Mitch lost their mother when she left to forage and never returned. Finally, Mitch allowed himself to be captured to buy Frenchy enough time to flee.
Lacking the resources or skills needed to survive alone, Frenchy very nearly dies. Miigwans and his adopted family find Frenchy in time to save him. Frenchy joins the group, learning the skills necessary for survival as Miigwans leads them north towards the dream of safety.
Behind them, Canada’s relentless “recruiters.” Ahead, desperate fellow First Nations people willing to buy personal safety by betraying others. Losses are inevitable. For the survivors, a question: can there be a safe haven in this world? or will the Canadians will drag everyone down with them?
Probably if your reaction to this is “I don’t care for the characterization of white people in this,” it may well be that you are not the intended audience.
It is said that dystopia is white people experiencing what they’ve done to other peoples. By that measure this is not a dystopia because the victims are not white. Nothing that happens in it is wildly out of keeping with historical practice in Canada, including inhumane medical experimentation1.
While there may be no one haven isolated enough to provide guaranteed safety indefinitely, there is what appears to be the certainty of safety in the future. It seems likely that all the non-dreamers will die once they run out of First Nations people to drain. If Frenchy and his pals can elude their hunters that long, they should one day inherit the world, polluted and toxic as it is. I understand this is hard on the non-dreamers, but sacrifices must be made for the greater good.
The novel is skillfully written and has been well received. Accolades include the Governor General’s Award, the Burt Award, and the Sunburst Award, among others2.
Given that this novel is a series of pursuits, narrow escapes, betrayals, and genocidal mass murder (not to mention jealous squabbles between teenagers), one might expect the novel to be relentlessly grim. There is grimness in abundance but the story is not entirely bleak. There are moments of hope, ones that are not cruel tricks by the author.
The Marrow Thieves is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Various employers were kind enough to make me their designated residential-school history-text reviewer. Each new book surprised me with new horrible revelations. The facts are always worse than you expect, even if you have come into it knowing that the facts will be worse than you think.
2: A television adaptation was announced in 2018. I am unsure of its current status.