Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Genre: Dystopian fantasy, YA Indigenous lit

Age Range: 14+

Synopsis: Teenage French is on the run. If he ends up in School, he’ll lose his dreams…and his life. When global warming nearly destroys all of mankind, most survivors are faced with an insidious plague: the inability to dream. In North America, only Indigenous people like French (who is Métis) retain this mysterious power of dreaming, which scientists believe can be extracted from their bone marrow. Evil Recruiters prowl abandoned cities and track through forests, hunting down people of Indigenous heritage and take them to factory-like Schools, from where no one returns alive. When French teams up with a small party of survivors – middle-aged hunter Miig, elder Minerva, and a rag-tag group of kids – he must learn when and who to trust. Dreams unlock the past and might just provide the key to the future…if French and his friends can manage to survive.


There is nothing about unicorns here (though there is a werewolf-type being). BUT, if you’re looking for a gripping YA fantasy that’s thought provoking and also well written, The Marrow Thieves is for you!

The language is amazing. Here’s a sample from the first page, as French’s brother opens a bag of Doritos and the “cheese-scented fireworks, that loud release of air and processed dust cheered us up.” Most of us aren’t eating Doritos during the apocalypse, but who hasn’t felt their brain light up at the smell and sound of powdery fake-flavoured deliciousness?

While there’s very little delicious food for French and the other characters to eat in the climate-devastated Canada of the novel, powerful language propels the narrative forward, literally and thematically. I could talk about the awesome way Dimaline describes French’s desire for his friend Rosie or French’s heartbreaking longing for his lost family and his grief when tragedy strikes the group, or the embedded story of the Rogarou (who’s like a kind of sexy werewolf???), but I’m going to talk about language as the thing that saves your life!

French thinks Minerva is a near-mute old crazy-lady whom the group carts around out of a sense of cultural respect for elders. But his almost-girlfriend, Rose, reveals that amongst the other girls and women of the group, Minerva opens up as a storyteller, a teacher of Cree and of culture.  Rather than being a dead-weight, Minerva and her selective choice of when and how to share her voice becomes the key to the group’s survival. She offers them an alternative story to the dehumanizing rhetoric used to isolate and destroy Indigenous bodies and culture.

Here, it’s important to note that this is dystopian fantasy…the science of how dreams and bone marrow are connected isn’t actually important. It’s rather the metaphor, that a mainstream society believes that people must be cracked open and their inner core stolen, that a marginalized culture must be eradicated for the mainstream to survive. The antiseptic language of “Recruiters” and “Schools” hides hideous violence and connects to Canada’s history of cultural genocide.

The secret of resistance is not simply dreams, but language. This is important, because language is something that might be inherited, but that must be actively learned, not passively inherited in the blood – or bone marrow. Language is a way to draw circles of community, to invite people in, to confirm knowledge…and to exclude outsiders. Ultimately, it’s not what you look like, but how you express yourself that counts. Language decenters the racist history of blood-quotas-as-identity from the “essence” or marrow of identity…but language brings up new complications when we’re talking about cultural transmission.

(Random thoughts on language acquisition here: If you’re not learning a language as a baby, language acquisition requires a certain amount of privilege. Not socio-economic privilege, but rather the luck of being embedded in a supportive cultural community. Growing up bilingual and trying to learn two other non-official languages as an adult, I know something about this difficulty. My non-English language has no cultural/practical/economic cachet in the society where I grew up. It took a family and a volunteer-run community apparatus of language speakers to provide the space for me not just to “passively” absorb the language as a young child, but the incentives to continue to learn and engage with the language as I grew up. As an adolescent or an adult, learning a language from scratch is way harder. It requires someone to teach you, time, and effort. So, what Dimaline is demanding of her teenage characters is a radical reorientation in what they value and how they spend their time. It’s hard, the narrative argues, but it could save your life. Arguably, this emphasis on investing in one’s own cultural group and turning away from the rhetoric of the mainstream is the book’s call to action for Canadian Indigenous readers. )

There’s also this lovely, tricky problem of whose language. Minerva and another significant character speak Cree. But when French’s group meets up with another, larger group, they encounter individuals from different tribes with different languages. Whose language is going to get passed on? Although Dimaline treads lightly around this issue, she doesn’t erase the fact that the issue of majority/minority cultures exists both between settler/Indigenous communities and within the umbrella term that is “Indigenous.” To speak between tribal backgrounds, individuals still rely on the colonizer’s tongue. (This isn’t a unique problem with anticolonial/antisettler resistance…A hundred years ago and across the Atlantic, Yeats’s poetry of Irish nationalism was written in English.)

Also, the book also has survivalism, romance, suspense, reunions with the long-lost, and a satirical take on eco-lodge tourism.

If you like The Marrow Thieves, you might also enjoy Dimaline’s latest, Empire of Wild (2019), Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster (2017) and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1994) and The Back of the Turtle (2014).

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