Healing Historical Trauma in "The Marrow Thieves"

Zachariah Cross

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

In this essay I examine how Cherrie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves acknowledges and works through the struggles of Native Americans, allowing the characters a way through their seemingly impossible survival and clearing a path to heal their historical trauma. The ability to dream is a key element of this processing of trauma, as well as the very thing that they are hunted for. 

The Marrow Thieves takes place in a dystopian future wrecked by global warming. Everyone but the Indigenous people of North America have lost their ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The marrow of the Indigenous people holds the cure for the rest of the world, but obtaining the marrow means death for the unwilling donors. The plot follows Frenchie, along with Miig, Wab, Minverva, RiRi, and Rose as they travel north in search of a haven from an evermore hostile world intent on hunting their marrow.

Dreaming’s importance is discussed by the characters in their ritual of “Story,” during which they cover events that have led to historical trauma for Native people. Historical trauma is a pattern in which traumatic experiences are passed from one generation to the next, causing mental and physical health complications that go otherwise unexplained. While it is not necessitated by the dictionary definition, the use of the term “historical trauma” in this paper refers to trauma experienced by an entire culture, in this case Native American people. The cycle of trauma for Native people began at First Contact and continues today throughout the United States and Canada. Narratives featuring Native people, especially in commercial children’s literature, perpetuate racist stereotypes which also reinforce the effects of historical trauma. This trope presents a challenge for literature written by and about real Native Americans because, on top of constructing a potentially successful story, the author must also overcome the stereotypical images of Native people in the hope of creating a more empowering narrative.

An important cornerstone of The Marrow Thieves is the ability to dream. Dreams are our link to the unconscious, and as Dimaline implies, our humanity: “a man without dreams is just a meaty machine with a broken gauge” (Dimaline 88). This move beyond realism as we know it implies metaphorical meaning behind the importance of dreams. Dreams are how we process and deal with the unknown, our unconscious pieces together what is otherwise disparate. Dreams are needed not only to piece together what is not understood, but also to imagine what is not yet real. We have to imagine ourselves beyond our current circumstances especially when those circumstances are bleak on their own. Hope is important for the characters and those who came before them as the world they live in is increasingly oppressive. 

In order to contextualize their world, the characters have a weekly ritual called “Story,” in which they retell the historical events leading up to the present. Story always weighs heavily on the characters, so much so that the youngest member of the group, Ri Ri, is initially banned from participating in the ritual, though she is “desperate for some understanding” (Dimaline 26). During Story, Miigwans recounts the decline and collapse of society that leads to their current predicament and “why [they] move north” (Dimaline 25). Miigwans ensures that Story is a routine they keep, saying that it is “the only way to make the kinds of changes that [are] necessary to really survive” (Dimaline 25). In discussing children’s literature about the internment, Chen and Yu write that “there, language provides a ‘proper’ context to turn the Thing into a ‘meaningful’ narrative. As the Thing becomes meaningful, it becomes bearable” (Chen and Yu 120). Telling Story allows the characters to give themselves context and also provide a meaningful narrative that makes their current struggle bearable as they make the journey north.

Story also provides a world adjacent to the journey through the forest. Though it is not a better world –the violent history weighs heavier on the characters than life in the woods– it provides a duality that helps complete the group’s wholeness, reminding us that “we need not only bread but also the psychological and emotional nourishment supplied by stories and the imagination (Clark and McDonald 55). Story pairs along with dreaming in order to give our characters wholeness. 

This need for the whole of understanding leads to contention in deciding whether to let young Ri Ri hear Story, which has been withheld thus far due to its being not only a path to wholeness but also that which “was withheld from her youth so that she could form into a real human before she understood that some [see] her as little more than a crop” (Dimaline 26). Miigwans is concerned about implanting the darkness of the world and the understanding of racism too early for the innocent Ri Ri, but as part of the group and no less a part of their struggles, Ri Ri arguably deserves the full version of Story. Due to accidentally hearing Wab’s coming to Story, Ri Ri is allowed to the full Story, says Miiwans: “Come daughter. Time to hear Story” (Dimaline 86). This reluctant reveal of darkness to the group’s youngest child suggests that while we would like to preserve the innocence of young children and not weigh them with all the darkness of the world, the reality is that they too are affected, and cannot be saved from hearing something of the dark truth, thus they may as well know the complete Story.

While it is clearly central to the book’s theme, Story is a rare occurrence and appears in only two different chapters. Most of the novel involves the journey up north and the character development of the protagonist, “French.” Within his development, however, we can still find more clues concerning the mystery of dreams. Following the death of Ri Ri and French’s murder of her captor, he finds that “something had changed since [he’d] fired the gun, since [he’d] killed Travis” (Dimaline 139). He reflects on the feeling and lack thereof, noting a connection between mind and body when he describes the feeling of loss as: “physical pain at the bottom of my stomach and under each kneecap” (Dimaline 139). Dreams are in this way again connected to a sense of humanity, as French is “dreamless” (Dimaline 139) in the days following his killing of Travis. A similar sentiment is found in Domino Perez’s commentary of Sherman Alexie’s Flight, when his character Zits “enters a bank to shoot innocent victims as a demonstration of anger and power” but instead finds that “it confirms his victimization and the misery of his life” (Perez 291). This focus on the destructive result of murder provides one reason for the loss of dreaming for non-Native people, who have led to the destruction the natural environment which they failed to sustain and respect. The choking of the resources from the earth is echoed as the recruiters now turn to natives to squeeze out their resources too.

Dimaline’s characters overcome the negative tropes of Native people through their strength of character– they are not people without hope, even in the most dire circumstances. Not only that but they encompass the whole story– no White characters exist except in reference. Dimaline thus provides a high level of diversity to the group of characters. Because the sphere of Native characters is all-encompassing, we can see diversity within the group and compare them to each other, rather than focusing on a comparison between Native and non-Native characters. These character differences include age, gender, family, tribe, personality, and sexuality. Even the men who betray the main group are of Indigenous blood, they echo the assimilated Natives of the past, who were put in charge of reservation schools when the government handed the schools to Native Americans. These characters too, enhance the diversity of the novel’s representation. 

In addition to the explicit Native-ness of the characters, Dimaline makes a point to include references to the respective tribes of each character as well as other tribes that appear during Story. By zooming in enough to clearly distinguish different characters and their tribes, Dimaline projects an image of Native people that acknowledges their various backgrounds, their existence as modern, normal people, and their diversity both individually and as tribes. The image of these characters as normal challenges tropes of Natives people that lock them in time and highlight a choice few tribes. While they are regular modern people, their heritage is not completely left behind, though its relative absence is noted as a result of a collapsing society and environment, says French: “but now, with most of the rivers cut into pieces and lakes left as grey sludge puckers on the landscape, my own history seemed like a myth along the lines of dragons” (Dimaline 21).

The novel’s similarity to popular dystopian fiction strengthens this image of normal, rather than exotic characters. The familiar story of societal collapse ending with tyrannical rule bears resemblance to most other dystopian works, and more specific similarities between this novel and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games exist, such as the secret Indian camp -equivalent to District 13- and even the death of Ri Ri along with the immediate death of her captor, which echo Rue and her death in The Hunger Games. By establishing a sense of familiarity alongside other dystopian works, The Marrow Thieves stands out where it defies expectations. Most notable is the book’s conclusion, which occurs abruptly and without much warning, lacking an obvious climax that confronts the enemy and leads to a grand conclusion. The closest we come to a great confrontation is when Minerva sings down the school, which happens apart from the narrated story and has to be told after the fact. The novel’s true climax is the attempted rescue of Minerva, which tragically fails, providing barely a spark of hope in Minerva’s last words to the other characters. After the rescue, The Marrow Thieves comes to an abrupt close following the discovery of  Isaac and his reunion with Miigwans. This conclusion is unexpected based on the buildup of the attitude that the group will “take on the Government arseholes ourselves” (Dimaline 33), or at least find a larger settlement of Natives to join, which is the hopeful end of their journey north. The novel’s end is not grand, but subtle, resolving almost nothing related to the larger plot. Instead it closes quickly with French’s newfound and hopeful understanding “that as long as there are dreamers left, there will never be want for a dream” (Dimaline 231). This abrupt ending puts extra emphasis on the earlier chapters about dreams, suggesting that what the characters need for victory has been with them all along, Isaac is the key.

But even the implication that Isaac can help them all to dream in Cree and burn down schools does not seem to be the priority in the novel’s closing. Rather, the focus is on the community and bonds; Isaac is more important in what his reunion with Miigwans signifies, namely that Native people’s commitment to each other is what matters, not just morally but also practically. In a telling of Story, Miigwans speaks of earlier history and how even after all the disasters, various Native tribes who moved north got together and got stronger: “they were tough, though, some of the toughest we’ve ever had” (Dimaline 25). Dimaline’s conclusion, then, does not address the issue of historical trauma directly, but rather it sets up a point of hope, an opportunity to overcome the obstacle of the character’s dire circumstances. In her paper on the Dear Canada series, Katherine Bell notes a certain character’s statement about how she no longer worries so much about the future. Bell writes: “[her] response may seem anti-climatic… and, yet, her response is also a liberative claim to a self that might be valued outside of, and in resistance to, the progressive organization of teleological narrative” (Bell 177). Applying Bell’s line of thinking to The Marrow Thieves suggests another reason for the jarring conclusion; namely that it challenges the established structure of dystopian fiction and rejects the need for a resolution that is as clearcut and structured as the government’s efforts to harvest Native people.

Concluding with strength and hope in a circumstance beyond what Native people face today makes a strong statement concerning the hope Indians have access to in our present. By equipping the characters with love and hope, Dimaline sets a tone of power in the face of adversity. In making the stories of the past accessible and even prioritized, yet acknowledging their hardship, Dimaline communicates the importance of stories not in spite of but because of their somber weight.

Works Cited

Bell, Katherine. “Behind the Blackout Curtains’: Female Focalization of Atlantic Canada in the 

Dear Canada Series of Historical Fiction.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 49, Issue 2, p. 161-179.

Chen, Fu-jin, and Su-lin Yu. “Asian North-American Children’s Literature About the Internment: 

Visualizing and Verbalizing the Traumatic Thing.” Children’s Literature in Education, 

vol. 37, no. 2, 2006, p. 111–124.

Clark, Roger, and Keith McDonald. “A Constant Transit of Finding’: Fantasy as Realisation in 

Pan’s Labyrinth.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 41, no. 1, 2010, p. 52-63.

Dimaline, Cherie. The Marrow Thieves. Cormorant Books Incorporated., 2017.

Perez, Domino Renee. “Not Another Dead Indian: Young Adult Fiction, Survivance, and 

Sherman Alexie’s Flight.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 41 no. 3, 2017, p. 285-306.


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