By Anya Shukla
One of my favorite novels—a novel quoted in the epigraph of “The Marrow Thieves”—is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” a brilliantly haunting, visceral read about a boy and his father traveling in a post-apocalyptic world. I am 95% sure that “The Marrow Thieves” alludes to “The Road” in several ways (though I’d need to re-read the two books to make sure). Both take place during the aftermath of environmental ruin and spotlight the moral failures induced by global destruction, both contain ragtag travelers and carts and bandannas.
Just wanted to point that out so people know that I’m an intellectual :P
Review: The year is post-2050, and amidst environmental and societal destruction, almost everyone has lost the ability to dream. Most of humanity fixates on finding a cure… which can only be obtained by capturing, torturing, and killing the only remaining dreamers—Indigenous people—and extracting the dreams in their bodies.
This crumbling world is the backdrop for Cherie Dimaline’s “The Marrow Thieves.” The book centers around Frenchie, an Indigenous teen, six other Indigenous youth, and two elders, all of whom are traveling north in a group in an attempt to avoid capture and placement in a “school” (where dream extraction takes place). As Frenchie and his newfound family journey onwards, they attempt to learn more about their heritage and history. Unusual, gorgeous language and an appreciation of Indigenous culture abound in this novel; yet insufficient character and plot development let “The Marrow Thieves” down. Rating: 3/5.
What I Loved: The LANGUAGE. I lowkey knew this book was going to be good from the first sentence: “Mitch was smiling so big his back teeth shone in the soft light of the solar power lamp we’d scavenged from someone’s shed” (pg. 15). That level of detail! Plus the sprinkle of alliteration!
Dimaline constructs such evocative, visually-lush sentences. While she does rely quite heavily on similes, her words create a hyper-specific environment that I can clearly picture. The words fit together in unconventional, yet beautiful ways: “He held his hands out, palms turning upwards in a slow ballet of bone, marrow intact after all this time, under the crowded sky, against the broken ground” (pg. 464).
I also liked the book’s focus on remembering history and cultural heritage. The schools that hold Indigenous peoples in “The Marrow Thieves” are a reincarnation of the Canadian residential schools, which ran for more than 100 years and were named a form of “cultural genocide” by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Committee. According to The New York Times, these schools were “established by the government to erode [Indigenous] culture and languages” and enrolled approximately 30% of all Indigenous children by the 1930s. Not only did children face numerous abuses—and even died—at these schools, they were forced to distance themselves from Indigenous culture and traditions. Dimaline uses her novel to share this history with her target audience, young adults.
Throughout “The Marrow Thieves,” the young characters work to recover their heritage. Upon learning a new word in “the language,” Frenchie repeats it over and over, as if “hoarding something precious” (pg. 231). By the book’s end, we find that that language—and the reclamation of heritage—is key to destroying exploitative systems. I think this message of cultural appreciation, added to the novel’s focus on familial connections, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights, will be appreciated by the YA crowd.
What I Didn’t Love (contains spoilers): The uneven pacing. “The Marrow Thieves” starts slowly, intermixing “real-time” scenes with flashbacks and worldbuilding; however, the main action seems to take place only in the second half of the book (with a large chunk contained in the last few chapters). One character gives herself up to the enemy, destroys an entire school, and then passes away in a failed rescue attempt. Another person with the power to raze the school system shows up only in the last pages without much prior warning.
Because of the sheer amount of plot points and dei ex machina condensed in the latter chapters, the story arc felt somewhat unrealistic. I would have preferred a longer read with a greater emphasis on third-act character and scene development. (Especially because there are 9 characters in Frenchie’s traveling group alone, and only a few of them have full-fledged backstories.)
On the note of slightly flawed character development… Let’s take a look at Frenchie, the main character and a respected personage in his group. Sure, he’s only 16, but he’s survived in the wild for several years. By the middle of the novel, he’s already taken a life. Then near the book’s end, he gets childishly jealous because Rose, a girl he likes—someone who CLEARLY likes him back—is hanging out with someone else. “I’m sorry I can’t be at your beck and call all the time… Don’t expect me to chase after you,” he says to her on page 398. Dude! Grow up! Frenchie oscillates abruptly between maturity and childishness, preventing me from getting a clear picture of his persona. I’m left with whiplash.
What’s worse about the aforementioned example? Frenchie and Rose’s argument never resolves. Grief just brings the two lovers back together, their fight “dissolving into the thick brew of tragedy, no more than a seasoning we might pull out later on” (pg. 429). BRUH. Grief or no grief, I am very tired of fictionalized boys being obnoxious to girls for no reason and then pretending that everything’s okay. Be a nice person, please.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads Because It’s Pretty: “I could find no satisfaction in my intentions; they were too tiny for the wholeness of her and who I was with her. I loved her. The certainty of the feeling was clear and bright and brown and lean and it hit me in the throat so that breathing became weeping” (pg. 324).
Up next: "Dancing in the Mosque" by Homeira Qaderi!