Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves

Posted on Oct 3, 2017

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves

Review by Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer

This is an astonishing YA novel set fifty or so years in the future, in a time when white people have lost the ability to dream. The novel follows an ad-hoc family of indigenous people as they flee from white ‘Recruiters’ whose singular aim is to harvest from their marrow the dreams of indigenous people.









The premise gave me such shivers when I first heard about this book. I love dreams. I long for them and am always happy when I recall them upon waking. I keep a dream journal and think about motifs in my dreams and how they change as I do. I chose a therapist based on his interest in dreams and so that I could think harder about the way dreams are letters from our unconsciousnesses. I love the idea of dreams punning. In this regard, I am a hundred percent a Freud acolyte. I have learned more asleep than I ever have from my waking hours.

The idea of losing the ability to dream suggests we have lost our unconscious aspects, which is to say, we have become so distanced from 0ur animal selves and so connected to our civilized, social, and literate selves that we no longer have access to our unruly natural aspects even in our sleep. In this way, Dimaline suggests that it is possible to be wholly repressed. From a Freudian perspective, this would mean that not only have we succumbed to a subjective indoctrination (the civility that language and our societal paradigm forces upon us) but that we have acquiesced to a woundedness that can never be healed. Dimaline seems to argue that white culture is headed in this direction (or that white culture has crashed). That the world Dimaline creates is in the throes of climate devastation and that cities are flooded and no longer viable threads its way through the narrative in a way that haunts the text and the lives of the indigenous group struggling in that landscape. It’s refreshing, I have to say, to read a novel that deals with climate and the horrors of capitalism (colonialism) as a resource hungry maw that cares not for the effects it wreaks and the devastation it leaves in its wake. Our culpability as a section of humanity is writ large in Dimaline’s story. The story of colonialism (capitalism/individualism/science) is inseparable from the story of climate change and this novel does a lot of work to reveal and witness its own thematic prognosis concerning climate end-times. It’s horrifying to read and just as important. The Marrow Thieves is a brilliant thought experiment (and in the context of the novel, never feels like one — it just feels like a great story).

Francis (French/Frenchie) is a Metis boy who joins a group of indigenous people running north. The group comprises young and old, and as the novel unfolds, we get to know the stories of all the people. What’s remarkable  (even if perhaps it shouldn’t be in this day and age) about this novel is that there are almost no white characters in it, and even when they appear, they have very tiny roles. No white voices at all in this novel means  that “white” becomes synonymous with violent oppression and genocide. This was very uncomfortable for me as a white person which is obviously, on some level, the entire point. As social commentary, Dimaline nails it. We are in the future but the future (as they say) is now. White colonialism has stolen many a dream, certainly. The homogeneity of whiteness in The Marrow Thieves initially struck me as disorienting and anti-realist until I realized that the impulse of the novel is very pointed in its critique, and in some way, a direct role reversal of the way in which white Canada has typically ghettoized native experience in order to control and undermine a culture it wanted to subordinate (and destroy). Dimaline aims particularly at residential schools within the structure of The Marrow Thieves but in doing so she also broadly swipes at our long, long history of cultural (and actual) genocide. I can’t really say enough about this novel. It’s so savvy and so deftly managed. Without finger wagging, Dimaline situates the reader in the mind of Francis such that we can’t escape the subject position of the hunted but that we also can’t escape his rich interiority, the sense of community, the complexities of the give and take of community living, and his own struggle with personal versus group identity.









I want to mention that there are paragraphs in the novel that took my breath away, they are that beautifully written. Dimaline is particularly lyrical when writing about nature. Here is a wee taste from a scene in which the group finds an old mansion to sleep in:

The moon lit the wide front hall in pale ribbons, turning the dust and broken bits of chair and wainscotting and climbing vines from feral houseplants into fairy tale turrets. We walked slowly, out of habit, out of fear, but also, now, out of reverence. This space felt untouched. We could feel the thrum of old activity sliding along the floorboards, caught in the keyholes of closed doors. Everything had been shut tight while so much was still supposed to happen. The intent and plans hadn’t had time to vacate. And here we were opening the lid of a sealed jar and all the anticipation of a tomorrow planned a thousand yesterdays ago came skittering to our feet like slick shelled beetles.

I have really only one complaint about this novel and that is an editorial one. I felt that, especially in the first fifty pages, some restraint around similes would have made a more forceful opening. I am almost never interested in what something is like. I want the thing itself. Occasional comparison can be evocative but too much makes the brain flail a bit too much and throws me out of the story. This is a small complaint for a very accomplished and beautiful story. What should happen with this novel is that many many people read it, and that one of these people ought to buy the rights to it and turns it into a film. Such a fine story so finely told. It’s timely, brave, intelligent, and simply a great adventure story.