Saturday, February 23, 2019

"The Marrow Thieves" by Cherie Dimaline

(This was the February 2019 Chicago Nerd Social Club selection.)

A post-apocalyptic indigenous YA story, The Marrow Thieves follows a teenage protagonist on a journey for survival across Northern Canada. In a world wracked by complex climate disaster, First Nations people find themselves hunted for their ability to dream, which everyone else has lost.

This was a very good read; I'm not much of a YA-reader, but wasn't put off by it—when the teenage-ness of the characters comes out in the later chapters, it's in very believably-confused attraction and rivalry. I think there's a limit to how well the world-building holds up to scrutiny—at club, we talked about "backpacker pragmatics" and issues of how the journey doesn't match up with calendar/map concerns very well—but the fairly episodic chapter structure keeps the story moving along, and the character interactions work.

I should note that, despite the YA title, there's some pretty heavy stuff here—that might be my YA-unfamiliarity showing. The title is not a metaphor, and there are significant violent scenes, including sexual violence. Its portrayal of systematic violence against Native American groups is one of its greatest strengths as a novel, however, especially the way its characters are facing these new atrocities out of a cultural memory of actual genocide—a side of the American colonial project that was seriously downplayed in my public schooling, at least, so it's powerful to see this being incorporated into good fiction.

I really like the way the book plays with the supernatural elements; maybe a better way to say it is that what counts as supernatural or magical, as opposed to just part of the world, is not a question the characters are interested in. There's some hand-wavey ideas about DNA encoding dreams in bone marrow, but it's not clear if that's literally true, a metaphor, or a pseudoscientific idea the whites are using—as an excuse, or just out of desperation. What I do really love is the way that the survivors' powers—and we don't know the real extent of them—are bound up with their cultures and languages.

On the one hand quite grim—on both anthropogenic climate disaster, and the history of genocide and oppression and the way they can come back quickly—The Marrow Thieves manages a kind of resilient spirit. Frenchie and his group of survivors have each other, something of a plan, and have even alluded to an eventual work to heal the planet.

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