Cherie Dimaline’s book The Marrow Thieves is the scariest I’ve read so far. Certainly the scariest this year, certainly among the more chilling books I’ve ever read. Scarier, even, than American War and I found that pretty intense.
It’s the little slices of realism that create the slow dread. I read a lot of dystopian young adult fiction (I’m not joking—a lot) and it’s never quite scary because it’s typically set well in the future and the world is stable, if evil and changed. Sometimes, the world is so far gone it’s not recognizable. It’s falls too far from our own reality to create a sense of dread. They’re stories wrapped in cautionary tales but ultimately fantasy.
But yeah. The Marrow Thieves? Chilling. It’s set not so far in the future, in Canada, in a world devastated by environmental impact. Not in a crazy way: the coastlines have crumbled, wildlife is stretched thin and it rains a lot. And First Nations people are being hunted for their bone marrow because the rest of the population has lost its ability to dream and in the marrow lies a cure. In case you missed the Star Trek Next Generation episode about not being able to dream, it basically makes you crazy. So most people with aboriginal blood are on the run. Frenchie finds a family in the wilderness, made up of other First Nations people who have found their way to each other. They go on the run together, avoiding men in sneakers called Recruiters who bring aboriginal people back to schools to presumably perform experiments on them and get their marrow, which cures the rest of the population.
Dimaline leaves out exactly what happens at these schools, but offers enough hints to suggest the First Nations people trapped in them get annihilated after they’re harvested for their useful parts. We never find out if the evil people doing this work have tried using science, not people, to find a cure, or who is calling the shots. She leaves much unsaid, which is even more frightening. We don’t know if society has collapsed, if other countries are experiencing the same social solutions. It doesn’t matter. Not knowing is far more terrifying. Frenchie and his makeshift family head north, trying to outrun Recruiters and their pasts, which are filled with loss.
While running they learn their traditional stories and history, form relationships, search for missing family members and try to find others like them. But mostly, what they do is run as far and as fast as they can.
I have, since childhood, had variations of a dream in which I’m being chased and can’t get away. No matter how far and how fast I run, someone is still inexorably coming after me and I somehow understand that they will catch me. So I read the entirety of The Marrow Thieves with my heart in my mouth (a saying I never really understood well before) and unfurling panic.
Dimaline repeats history in The Marrow Thieves. It’s not the first time First Nations peoples have been exploited for their culture, their bodies, nor the first time their existence threatened. It’s Dimaline’s use of familiar historic terms (schools) and situations (trying to reason with the dominant government), that root the entire book into believable territory. Genocide was caused once before—it could happen again. Humans are not so good at learning from their mistakes or seeing the errors of their ways.
Cherie Dimaline was at Events 7 (The Upside Down), 46 (Yes, You Can!), and 47 (Dreams and Nightmares) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.