A. What does it mean to be human? and
B. What does it mean to be Indigenous?
These questions are packaged in a gripping survival story set in the near-future in the area that used to be Canada, after devastating population loss due to illnesses, climate change and pollution. The first-person narrator is Frenchie (or Francis), a Metis boy who has lost his brother and parents, but joins up with a small group of Indigenous people led by a gay man named Miigwans, and an Elder named Minerva, who is "dark and round and tiny like a tree stump."
The whole group is on the run because Indigenous people are being hunted. New laws require mandatory incarceration in residential schools. I'm not letting the cat out of the bag to say that the reason they are being hunted is that it's been discovered that bone marrow from Indigenous people provides a cure for the current illness of non-Indigenous people. This information is right on the back cover of the book.
Miigwans explains: "They stopped dreaming. And a man without dreams is just a meaty machine with a broken gauge." Indigenous people are like living dreamcatchers in this novel, in a way, because they continue to dream. An interesting premise. Anyway, there are many themes that relate directly to Indigenous experiences in Canada:
Othering. Dehumanizing tactics, including rape and other violence; treating people as if they are not human beings.
Residential Schools. The historic purpose in Canada of annihilation through assimilation is ratcheted up to the highest level in the terrifying prisons depicted in this novel.
Skin colour and its connection to the concept of race. Based on appearance, how can you tell if someone is West Indian or Pilipino or Nehiyawak? And of the three, only the Nehiyawak person has the right kind of bone marrow...
Homelessness and poverty. The Indigenous characters we follow over the course of several years are constantly on the move, evading capture that will mean certain death, so they have very little in the way of security and material goods.
Disenfranchisement. All Indigenous peoples in the former Canada have been stripped of their rights.
Addiction. Of the extensive cast, only two minor characters have substance abuse issues, but their addictions have significant consequences for themselves and others.
Treaties. A climate of distrust and broken promises; in the backstory of this novel, attempts to negotiate with government representatives have been unsuccessful, to put it mildly.
Language. Importance of Indigenous languages as a tie to cultural rootedness.
Respect and reverence for Elders. Minerva is more than an archetype or placeholder; her involvement is central to the plot and the motivations of the other characters.
Storytelling as teaching and connection to community. Frenchie and all of the others in his current band of chosen family each have "coming-in" stories (something like the way queer people have "coming-out" stories). Stories also are used to educate the younger folk, as in the passage quoted earlier, where Miigwans explains about dreaming.
Connection to the land. This is a big one: the love and respect the characters have for the broken land they are living on comes through strongly in the story. Healing water and land from pollution is as important as personal survival.
There were a few rough spots that I wish had been caught in editing, like when Frenchie has blood in his mouth and "tasted wet pennies," even though pennies were phased out of use in Canada before he was born. Also, when he was alone in the bush, how could he know that his cough broke a blood vessel in his eye?
In another passage: "I crossed my arms, refusing to be impacted." Okay, maybe by this time in the future, "impact" will be acceptable as a verb that way. So I will try not to be grumpy about it.
I do appreciate that Frenchie has an affinity for literature: "I reverted to the books I loved, those rare and impractical luxuries I'd happened on a few times in my life and hoarded until they fell apart, all pulp and tears."
The Marrow Thieves is the kind of story that merits being read until it falls apart. May copies be passed among many eager hands.