What happens when we stop dreaming? And what if we could steal the dreams of someone else and take them for our own? Would we do it, even if it meant the destruction of the people we’re stealing from? That question is at the heart of The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (2017). This Young Adult novel (which even adult readers will find compelling) won a slew of awards and rightfully so. It centers the historical experience of indigenous nations in an imagined future where, sadly, not much has changed from the racist past and present.
In that not-so-distant future, rampant climate change has wreaked havoc on the Earth. Coastal regions of North America have fallen prey to the rising seas, and the seismic shifts have ruptured pipelines and sent pollution spilling across the landscape. The resulting hordes of refugees have strained resources in the habitable areas that remain and sparked wars and societal disruption.
All of the chaos has also caused a less obvious problem: People have lost the ability to dream, causing emotional and physical stress to build. It seems only one group has escaped the dreamless void: Indigenous people, perhaps because of their ancestral ties to and respect for the land, continue to experience normal dreaming. But what at first seems like a blessing quickly becomes a nightmare, as white scientists develop a way to extract dreams from indigenous individuals and implant them in the dreamless people. No one seems to care that the restoration of health to whites means the death of the expendable indigenous people.
The stars began to rip through the hard skin of dark like the sharp points of silver needles through velvet. I watched them appear and wink and fade, and I smiled. This wasn’t going to be so bad. Maybe the end is just a dream. That made me feel sorry for a minute for the others, the dreamless ones. What happened when they died? I imagined them just shutting off like factory machines at the end of a shift: functioning, purposeful, and then just out.
Frenchie is a 15-year-old indigenous boy when The Marrow Thieves starts. He and his brother Mitch have lost both their parents and are on the run, in hiding from the Recruiters who round up indigenous people and take them to facilities modeled on the 19th century residential boarding schools where native children in both the US and Canada were sent to “cure” them of their native culture. The new versions dispense with the re-education and simply “harvest” dreams from their captives, consigning them to a death sentence. The two brothers are separated, and just when things look most dire for Frenchie he meets up with another group of indigenous people who are also fleeing the white Recruiters. Together this ragtag band of strangers makes its way north, where they hope to find safety in a place where few or no white people, the land is less polluted and they will be able to once again pass on their ancient cultural traditions to their children.
Dimaline doles out the backstory for Frenchie and his companions sparingly, alternating flashbacks into each one’s past life with the perilous day-to-day existence they are sharing in the present. The flashbacks aren’t intrusive and they bring the characters to life in a way that simply expositing their backgrounds would not. By the end, readers will celebrate and mourn alongside the characters we’ve come to know.
Really, the only flaw I could find won’t necessarily be a dealbreaker for everyone (or even anyone) else. Because this is a YA novel, narrated by a teenage (though appealing) character, there’s a bit too much self-absorption and time spent on a secondary romance that distracts from the tension of the main plot line. But even those elements are fairly muted compared to some YA I’ve read, and I have no reservations (no pun intended) about recommending this book to readers of all ages. It’s a wonderful book that shines a welcome spotlight on indigenous culture and people.