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Review: The Marrow Thieves

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Like many who follow Canadian Lit, I’d been hearing about The Marrow Thieves for the last year and a half. Despite picking up a copy a while back, I only just got around to reading it. And, man, am I sorry I put it off for so long.


In a future world, the ability to dream has become rare and only North America’s Indigenous People retain the ability. Dreamlessness has led to widespread madness and the re-institution of residential school tactics. Recruiters hunt down Indigenous People for their marrow, which may hold the secret to curing dreamlessness. But extracting the marrow means the death of the forced donor.

With recruiters on the prowl, sixteen-year-old Frenchie and his companions are on the run in search of safety, lost loved ones, and connections to their cultures.

Let’s get into it…

Cherie Dimaline sets up the world of The Marrow Thieves well, beginning years after the dream crises begins and introducing us to Frenchie as he’s losing his brother to recruiters. This isn’t a story about the collapse of society, but rather one of society already collapsed. By showing us the order that has arisen, Dimaline draws strong comparisons between fiction and reality. Appropriation, exploitation of Indigenous bodies and lands, and general ignorance of Indigenous Peoples and their cultures are all addressed in this novel. And Dimaline examines these while demonstrating the resilience of her Indigenous characters.

While this subject matter is often bleak, Frenchie and his found family offer some hope. Yes, they are on the run and often aren’t sure who to trust. But they care about and for each other. They try to learn about their cultures. They attempt to build when everything around them dictates they should fall. And the stark truth of this is that there are many Indigenous peoples who show the same resilience in the face of prejudice, erasure, and systematic inequality. Dimaline does what I think (note: I’m a white colonist) is a good job of extrapolating on current issues and casting them in a new, but familiar light. (The last residential school in Canada closed within my lifetime in 1996.)

It took me a little while to distinguish the character’s in Frenchies group simply because we focus mostly on Frenchie himself and there are quite a few secondary characters in this novel. But ultimately the ragtag team and the small quirks of each character are enchanting. The quiet protection of Chi-Boy, or the twins, Tree and Zheegwon, sharing a baseball cap are particularly charming.

Also on display is the theme of community and family. Though shared persecution brings the group together, they bond and form a real family. This family consists of people of various Indigenous identities. It was interesting to see different groups represented and to see characters of different backgrounds come together. Yet, as heartening it is to see them form a family, it also made me think about how often colonizing cultures force Indigenous identities all into the same box. (Even the term Indigenous is troublesome as it doesn’t recognize the actual identities of individuals.)

The structure of The Marrow Thieves also intrigues me. Most of the novel is from Frenchie’s point of view, but there are a few chapters told from other perspectives. The “Coming To” stories of Miigwams and Wab are good examples of this. Even in chapters told from Frenchie’s POV we sometimes get a switch in perspective or an extended period of dialogue where another character is telling a story.

These are examples of The Marrow Thieves refusing to conform to structures of most white, western literature does. While this convention is a little unfamiliar to me (I need to read more Indigenous lit), I find it fascinating. I think the way Dimaline has captures the tone of stories verbally passing between people is wonderful. It makes for entertaining reading, for sure. I’ve learned that story-telling is a major part of many Indigenous cultures, and I think allowing the structure choices that depart from western writing conventions serve to illustrate that.

Dimaline discussed some of these structure choices with The Educator Collaborative on Twitter as well, confirming that they are intentional departures from Western literary convention. I think this is an important conversation for publishing to consider. As an editor, I need to be aware of writing conventions outside of white, western literature. And the best way for me to learn that is through reading, so I have enormous gratitude for The Marrow Thieves for bringing this to my attention.

The Marrow Thieves is a relatively small book with a plot that takes places within a relatively short period of time during the dream crises. But it is packed with good characters, interesting commentary, and skillful writing. It’s guaranteed to get you thinking and to entertain. And even with the bleak future the novel presents, there’s hope and resilience within its pages. And hope and resilience are powerful things, in fiction and reality.

Final thoughts: The Marrow Thieves is worth reading for what it has to say and how it says it. It’s entertaining, thought-provoking, and enjoyable. I wish books like it had been on the curriculum when I was in school instead of the stuffy Canadian historical fiction I was forced to read.

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