In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing “factories.”
I’d been meaning to read The Marrow Thieves for a long time, so I was glad to finally have the excuse in preparing these discussion questions for #ANewChapter. Although I was not involved in choosing the six “classic” novels for #ANewChapter, I did collaborate with Green Hill School librarian Julie Forbes in picking the three more contemporary YA selections. The experience was… frustrating, but only because it turns out the YA sci-fi market is shockingly small, especially when it comes to books written by authors of color. I kept feeling like I must be missing something, until I stumbled upon Farah Mendlesohn’s “The Campaign for Shiny Futures,” published in The Horn Book in 2014.
Mendlesohn’s witty and respectfully scathing article pulls apart many disconcerting trends in YA sci-fi, including YA reviewers’ disdain for the sci-fi genre’s prioritization of intellectual and informational concerns over emotional ones, as well as YA sci-fi authors’ relentless focus on futuristic dystopias (which Mendlesohn describes as “downright doom-mongering and disempowering”). Much of what I’d seen on my hunt for diverse YA sci-fi authors suddenly made sense, especially given the already limited market for authors of color in children’s publishing. (Things are changing… but slowly.)
Despite my repeatedly seeing the book included on YA sci-fi lists, Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is definitely not what Mendlesohn would call sci-fi. I’m not sure I would call it sci-fi. However, I do think it’s an interesting speculative fiction novel that actually manages to start from a place of catastrophic dystopia and yet push back against the gloom and hopelessness that haunts so much of the sci-fi genre’s YA faction. I can only imagine that such determined hopefulness comes from Dimaline’s position as an Indigenous author writing (at least in part) for Indigenous youth. When, as Dimaline says, the worst has already happened, where must you go from there? How do you continue forward? How do you reclaim power, instead of giving up and letting the dystopian future claim you?
Discussion questions below the cut!
Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document
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Cherie Dimaline (Métis) has said in interviews that she prefers to identify as an Indigenous author, as opposed to a Canadian one: “Because we are the people of story, it is a great honor for me to be called a Métis writer. It denotes a title, an honor, and a certain knowledge. In fact, I feel demoted when I’m referred to as only a Canadian writer. My community has struggled and survived, and I’m enormously proud to be able to carry our voices forward.”
- In what ways do you think an author identifying with a specific culture empowers that author? Think both about how they see themselves and how the rest of the world sees them.
- In what ways do you think an author identifying with a specific culture disempowers or limits that author? Think both about how they see themselves and how the rest of the world sees them.
- If you were to become an author (or any other kind of artist), is there a particular culture or group to which you belong that you would feel honored to represent? Would you want to identify yourself as writing specifically from that culture or group? Explain your answer.
Dimaline wrote The Marrow Thieves with an Indigenous audience in mind, but also with the intention that the book would be accessible to non-Indigenous readers. She also wrote the book as a Canadian, stating, “I think it’s so strange [that] people in the United States are thinking about this book. It’s so Canadian to me and it’s so Indigenous.”
- Did anything about the book seem particularly Indigenous or Canadian to you? Explain your answer.
- What strategies do you think Dimaline used in order to make the book accessible to non-Indigenous readers? Use examples from the book to support your answer.
- What do you think are the challenges and the rewards of reading a book from a culture different from your own?
- What about The Marrow Thieves do you think might allow readers to connect with the book, regardless of their own cultural background? What do you think is universal about the story?
Speculative fiction is a large category of books that includes science fiction, fantasy, and any other story that takes place in a world different from our world in some way.
- How would you define both science fiction and fantasy? What would you say are the main differences between science fiction and fantasy as genres?
- Do you think The Marrow Thieves is science fiction or do you think it’s fantasy? Alternatively, do you think we should just call it speculative fiction? Explain your answer.
In her speech at BookExpo America in 2004, speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin said:
Immature people crave and demand moral certainty: This is bad, this is good. … To them, heroic fantasy may offer a vision of moral clarity. Unfortunately, the pretended Battle Between (unquestioned) Good and (unexamined) Evil obscures instead of clarifying, serving as a mere excuse for violence—as brainless, useless, and base as aggressive war in the real world. … In an America where our reality may seem degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality, imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives.
- Do you think that The Marrow Thieves is the kind of complex “imaginative literature” that Le Guin describes here? Or does it simplify the world into two clear categories of good and evil? Explain your answer using examples from the text.
- Can you think of any examples from your own life or from current events when people simplified a complex situation into just “good vs. evil” with no middle ground?
- Drawing on those examples, why do you think it might be harmful for people to have the “moral certainty” that Le Guin describes?
Epigraphs are short quotations included at the beginning of a work in order to suggest the work’s theme.
The first epigraph for The Marrow Thieves comes from William S. Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads, a cowboy Western that turns into an experimental sci-fi novel: “The way to kill a man or a nation is to cut off his dreams, the way the whites are taking care of the Indians: killing their dreams, their magic, their familiar spirits.”
The second epigraph comes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel about a father and son trying to survive an apocalyptic future as they walk towards an unclear destination: “Where you’ve nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
- If you read these quotes at the beginning of The Marrow Thieves without knowing anything else about the book, what might these quotes suggest about the story you’re going to read? Why do you think Dimaline chose these quotes for the novel’s epigraphs?
- Readers of The Marrow Thieves will not necessarily be familiar with the novels that these two quotes come from. Do you think knowing something about where the quotes come from adds anything to their meaning? Why or why not?
In an interview, Dimaline stated, “An Indigenous publisher had asked me to write a short story in the apocalypse or dystopian genre, and when I sat down to think about it, I could not think of anything worse than what had already happened.” In The Marrow Thieves, Dimaline draws on the residential school system, used in both Canada and the United States to try and destroy Indigenous culture, as the basis of her plot.
- What do you think is the effect of Dimaline using something that had previously happened in real life as the model for what is currently happening in the novel? Does it strengthen the text? Weaken it? Explain your answer.
- How much did you already know about the residential school system before reading The Marrow Thieves? Do you think not knowing anything about the residential schools would make it more difficult for a reader to understand the book? Why or why not?
- What kind of information have you learned about Indigenous peoples during your own school experience so far? What topics did you learn about? How much time did your teachers spend on those topics? From whose perspective were those topics taught? Did you learn about present-day Indigenous people or only Indigenous people from the 1600s to 1800s?
- During the past few years in the United States, a number of state governments have passed or attempted to pass laws preventing public schools from teaching students about topics such as racism, sexism, LGBTQIA+ history, and other “divisive” subjects. Why do you think some state governments are attempting to pass these types of laws at this particular moment in time? What kinds of feelings may be motivating these laws’ supporters?
- Do you think fictional books like The Marrow Thieves can help fill in the gaps in how students in the United States are taught (or not taught) about Indigenous peoples? Why or why not?
Speculative fiction like sci-fi and fantasy is often critiqued for the quality of its worldbuilding: how well the author makes the fictional world feel “real.” How would you critique the worldbuilding in The Marrow Thieves? Do you think Dimaline’s world is complex and vivid? Do you think Dimaline does a good job of delivering worldbuilding information in a way that makes sense and feels natural? Does the world of The Marrow Thieves feel “real” to you? Why or why not?
Building strong, interesting, and engaging characters is a challenge every novelist faces. What, for you, defines a “strong character” in a book? Do you think Dimaline succeeded in creating strong characters? Why or why not?
Frenchie often mentions wanting to feel “old-timey.”
- What does “old-timey” mean to Frenchie? Why does he chase after “old-timey” experiences?
- After becoming jealous of Derrick, Frenchie says, “I puffed out my chest a bit, remembering that I still had the longest braids, even in this larger group. That made me a better Indian, after all.”
According to Frenchie in this scene, what does it mean to be a “better Indian” than someone else? Do you think his judgment here is a productive mindset or a harmful one?
The concept of “home” plays a major role in The Marrow Thieves.
- When Rose repeats Minerva’s last words to Frenchie, she says, “Kiiwen, Frenchie. You must always go home.” What do you think “home” means for Frenchie? Do you think it means the same thing for other characters in the novel?
- What does “home” mean to you personally? Are there homes in your life to which you wish you could return? Are there homes to which you can never return?
- When Clarence states they need to return to their homelands to start the process of healing, Frenchie asks, “How can you return home when it’s gone? Can’t you just heal out here?” Clarence replies, “I mean we can start healing the land. We have the knowledge … When we heal our land, we are healed also.”
Why do you think Clarence insists that the healing of the land is necessary for the healing of their people?
- In an interview, horror novelist Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfoot) stated:
All Indians who are doing art are doing art in the post-apocalypse where we’re definitely trying to fight for number one—just existence—because so many people don’t understand that American Indians still exist… They think that we went away with the covered wagons or whatever. So that’s the first battle. And the second battle is … not for fair or charitable representation, I don’t think. I think that’s a distraction. I think it’s for treaty rights, for legal stuff, you know, I think sovereignty. That’s the stuff that we always need to be angling for and looking towards.
How might you see the two battles Jones describes here represented in The Marrow Thieves?
In an interview about Indigenous writers, Dimaline stated, “We’re generally raised in story. We have traditional stories that hold our teachings. A lot of our culture is held within our stories.”
- Consider the structure of The Marrow Thieves and how information gets delivered throughout the book. How do you see the importance of storytelling reflected in this novel?
- During the group’s first night at the Four Winds Resort, Minerva tells a story of the Rogarou. What kind of teaching do you think is being passed along in this story? Consider the story’s audience in your answer.
- Describing the importance of language, Dimaline stated, “My grandmother and her sisters spoke Michif, the ‘youngest’ recognized language in existence. Hearing words that had no direct translation, and then losing them when they passed away, made me appreciate—sadly, too late—the magic of their words.”
In The Marrow Thieves, Frenchie hungers for Anishinaabemowin words. What does this language represent for Frenchie?
- How do you think language can shape the very ways in which we understand the world?
Four days after Frenchie kills Travis, Miig tells him, “Thing is, French, sometimes you do things you wouldn’t do in another time and place. Sometimes the path in front of you alters. Sometimes it goes through some pretty dark territory. Just make sure it doesn’t change the intent of the trip. … As long as the intent is good, nothing else matters. Not in these days, son.” Do you agree with Miig’s statement? Why or why not?
Minerva’s singing destruction of the school is a major turning point in the novel, but the event itself takes place “offscreen,” since Frenchie is not there to witness it. Instead, we receive a third-hand account. Do you think this choice on Dimaline’s part weakens the novel at all? Why or why not? How do you think the scene would change if Frenchie were there to witness it? What larger impact would that change then have on the novel as a whole?
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi) writes, “After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, ‘The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.’”
- Consider the present-day United States and Canada. What do you see that suggests most people “don’t have both feet on the shore”?
- In The Marrow Thieves, the Earth has been wrecked by global warming and related natural disasters. Do you personally feel like such a future is now inevitable? Why or why not? What do you think it would take for us to stop global warming? Who do you think has the power to stop global warming?
- Kimmerer continues by writing, “Like my elders before me, I want to envision a way that an immigrant society could become indigenous to place, but I’m stumbling on the words. Immigrants cannot by definition be indigenous. … But if people do not feel ‘indigenous,’ can they nevertheless enter into the deep reciprocity that renews the world? Is this something that can be learned?”
How would you answer Kimmerer here? Do you think it’s possible for immigrants to learn an indigenous mindset? How would people go about learning that way of thinking and behaving?
For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!
If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.