The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline
Book review by Janet Angrave
The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline, was one of this year’s Canada Reads choices (but not the winner). Not knowing anything about the novel or its author, I chose this book for two reasons: the author is a YA (Young Adult) author, and the intriguing picture of a young aboriginal man on the cover. Between the covers was a story quite different from what I had anticipated. Though two of this year’s five novels were categorized as “futuristic”, the future depicted here is much closer and more disastrous than any of us could imagine.
Cherie Dimaline, a Georgian Bay Métis, has worked in indigenous communities as a social worker. She has witnessed the hopelessness of today’s young native people. She said, in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC, that “she wrote this novel to show the youth there is a future for them despite the residential school legacy which continues to be very much alive in their culture.”
In preparing to write her novel, Ms. Dimaline consulted NASA for possible environmental events we can expect in the near future. Prepare yourselves for cataclysmic disruptions! In the book, melting polar ice results in the erosion of coastal regions and the loss of cities and thousands of people. Earthquakes create their own disasters, one of which is the rupture of pipelines resulting in soil and water pollution. Wind storms and constant rain are further events which disrupt life as we know it. People are homeless, sick and forced to search for food and clean water. Homes, businesses, towns and cities have been abandoned.
This is the situation we encounter when we begin reading the novel. A Métis family has left their home in southern Canada near the Great Lakes, travelled north and found a deserted cabin which becomes their home before they continue their journey. Jean, the father, goes with other council members to talk to the governors, hoping to end the situation in which they have become the victims. Jean never returns; their mother loses hope and the will to live. The orphaned boys, Mitch and Francis, are fending for themselves, scavenging for food and bottled water and living in a tree house. The “Recruiters” are constantly searching for prey, which, in this case, is the indigenous people. Why would the white man hunt the natives and capture them? This is the situation Jean hoped to terminate by talking to the people who consent to this savagery. It turns out that the white man is bothered by sleeplessness and has lost the ability to dream. They believe the natives’ ability to dream can be harvested by siphoning the DNA found in their bone marrow. We learn that this scientific procedure is taking place in buildings which resemble residential schools; thus they are regarded as places of horror, which they indeed are.
So Mitch and Francis are always alert to the danger of being spotted by the Recruiters. After a food-hunting expedition, Mitch is captured and Francis is left to fend for himself. Alone, hungry, sick and wet, he knows to go north. Fortunately, he is found by a small native group who are also escaping. Miigwans, their leader, knew Francis’ father and is a “school/lab” survivor. As we learn later, everyone who manages to escape has scars which attest to the severity of the DNA tests. This group becomes his new family which cares for and comforts him. Soon he is able to contribute to their well-being; because he is adept at tree-climbing, he becomes the scout who can tell whether or not it is safe to camp.
For approximately five years, this is their life: breaking camp before dawn, slogging through swampy land all day and making camp before dusk. They revive some traditions such as story-telling around the campfire, saying a prayer of gratitude to an animal for providing them with food, and to the earth for nourishing that animal. Minerva, the eldest of the band, knows native languages, and Francis, now called “Frenchie”, finds he is eager to learn. There are typical teenage moments when Frenchie is jealous of the attention given to Rose, his special friend, by another young man from the group they eventually encounter and join. Now their increased numbers mean they have more resources, hunters, and skills to survive; so they continue their quest for the “homeland”, a place where they will heal.
Any readers who remember their high school Canadian History courses will recall how the white man decimated the native populations by taking away their lands, bringing disease and death by starvation and not honouring many of the treaties. The indigenous people were victims then; now, the author creates a 21st century situation in which, once again, they become victims. However, the author envisions a different outcome. Because the native peoples have superior survival skills, age-old knowledge of the land and what it produces, the resilience and energy to carry on, there is a positive, hopeful conclusion to this revealing novel. Frenchie has become a responsible young man, proud of his heritage and, in time, capable of becoming a leader.
The message of this novel is,” Take care of one another and our environment”. Mother Earth is a wonderful provider, but it is imperative that we learn from the past and not repeat history. In the words of one of the characters, “When we heal our land, we heal ourselves.”
The Saturday children`s activity this week will focus on Pirates. Next week`s activity will be oriented around Earth Day.
Lovers of reading and movies are encouraged to take advantage of our promotion of DVDS about Writers and Writing.