Cbr11bingo Own voices
Author Cherie Dimaline is a Canadian Metis writer, that is, her heritage is a mix of Indigenous American and European. In The Marrow Thieves, she imagines a grim future where environmental disasters, both man-made and natural, and disease have broken the Earth and most of its people. Government, science and religious leaders turn to Indigenous people for survival, but not in a way that involves respect and collaboration. As they have done throughout history, they aim to take something vitally important from the Indigenous people in order to help themselves.
Frenchie, a 16-year-old Metis fugitive, serves as our narrator. He has lost his parents and his older brother to “recruiters,” which is the name for government agents who round up Indigenous people and imprison them in residential schools. Frenchie grew up in Ontario near what was once Toronto but is now a city in ruins. The essentials — food, water, power, clean air — are hard to come by, and the population is desperate. Frenchie is running north, as his father had planned. Frenchie’s father had been a member of his people’s council, and had gone to the capital to try to reason with government authorities. He never returned. Frenchie, who is 11 when the story begins, is in the forest and near death when he is found by a small group of fellow refugees, led by an older man named Miigwans.
Over the years, as they travel north, never staying long in one place in the wilderness for fear of being caught by recruiters, this group becomes a family. Miigwans teaches the teens how to hunt, find safe sites, protect one another, and he tells Story to them. Story is their history.
“We need to remember Story. It was our job to set the memory in perpetuity.”
Miigwans tells the youths about the history of Indigenous people in the Americas, about their proud history as fighters and warriors, a history that was thousands of years old when the outsiders came with germs and guns. Miigwans tells them about the residential schools of the past that attempted to destroy their culture and language, that broke up families. And he tells them how they later rebuilt their own communities. Through Story, Miigwans also explains what has happened to cause the earth’s destruction and the return of residential schools. Due to environmental disaster and universal death and destruction, fewer people have survived and those who have have fallen prey to desperation and psychological disturbance, which manifests itself in an inability to dream at night. Indigenous peoples have not lost this ability, and so their bodies, the very marrow in their bones, is coveted by non-Indigenous people to ensure survival.
In the course of their travels, members of this small traveling circle have the choice to tell their “coming-to” story, that is, how they came to join the group. They are tragic, violent stories, and are only told voluntarily. As Miigwans says,
…everyone tells their own coming-to story. That’s the rule. Everyone’s creation story is their own.
Frenchie’s traveling companions are mostly teens and children but in addition to Miigwans there is another elder named Minerva. She is a strange woman who is growing infirm and who rarely speaks, but when she does, it is often in her native language. Frenchie, when he realizes what she knows, is eager to learn from her. Minerva’s knowledge, however, goes beyond native language. When Frenchie and the others discover that they are not alone in the forest, Minerva’s abilities and their significance will be revealed in a dramatic and spectacular way.
The Marrow Thieves is a coming of age story, a history lesson, and a warning. Frenchie, in addition to fighting for survival in a violent world that would sacrifice him for someone else’s idea of “the greater good,” is also a teenager who feels anger, jealousy, and love for Rose, a teen who joins the travelers. The environmental destruction described in the story is all too plausible, and the danger of repeating past abuses of Indigenous peoples and non-Europeans is obvious in our present world. The Marrow Thieves won the Governor General’s Award for English Language Children’s Book in 2017, as well as the Kirkus Prize for Young Adult Literature, and it was a finalist in the CBC 2018 Canada Reads competition. It’s a powerful story of Indigenous’ people’s history, the need to remember and pass it on, and the horrors that result from trying to erase minorities from the world and from history.