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Cherie Dimaline reaches young readers with futuristic, dystopian narrative rooted in Canadian history

The epidemic of youth suicide in Indigenous communities preyed on Cherie Dimaline's mind. But what could she — a writer — do to make a difference and to reach kids who might feel a little hopeless? Her solution: Write a novel where young, Indigenous people save the world.
Cherie Dimaline is the author of the YA novel The Marrow Thieves. (Courtesy of Cherie Dimaline)
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The epidemic of youth suicide in Indigenous communities preyed on Cherie Dimaline's mind. But what could she — a writer — do to make a difference and to reach kids who might feel a little hopeless? 

Her solution: Write a novel where young, Indigenous people save the world. 

"I felt this urgency. I was so excited by the idea of showing these kids other kids, [actually] themselves, in a future and not just surviving but being the absolute answer, being the heroes. I was driven by that idea," said Dimaline, who is Métis.

The Marrow Thieves is that story. The 2017 young adult novel unveils a world where non-Indigenous people lose the ability to dream. To regain their dreams, they hunt and then harvest the bone marrow of Indigenous people. It's a story that has struck a chord with critics and readers.
The Marrow Thieves

In early November, Dimaline won the U.S. Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature. The novel also won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature.

The novel first appeared as a short story in a larger, multi-author collection of science fiction, a genre Dimaline hadn't written before. The thought of tackling a new kind of storytelling was a little intimidating at first, she said. 

So she started by coming up with a broad idea: create a dystopian future that involves a chase of some sort. But her imagined future, Dimaline quickly realized, was actually deeply rooted in the past.

"I thought, 'All I really need to do is look backwards in history and look at residential schools, and look at commodification of Indigenous culture and sort of move that into the future.'"

Storytelling is in Dimaline's DNA.  Every year, her family would spend summers in Georgian Bay, Ont., her grandmother's home community.

Her grandmother and her grandmother's sisters would tell Dimaline traditional stories over and over again in Michif and also in English. 

"They would ask me to tell it back to them. Some stories I could play with and make them different and other [stories] had to be exact but it was my entire life of hearing these stories," Dimaline recalled.

"Story was an integral part of me, of who I was and what my place was in the community," she said. Writing her own stories was a natural evolution from a childhood filled with storytelling.

"I've always been really drawn to stories and books. And before I could really even write, I knew I wanted to write books because they were so exciting to me and I really wanted to be a part of that world."

Writing fiction is Dimaline's way of making larger points about the Indigenous experience and the uncomfortable truths of the past wrapped up in a "little bit of a cushion".

It's a way of mutually addressing the issues without shoving a message or point in readers' faces. It also prevents people from naturally becoming defensive, she explained.

Her primary focus with The Marrow Thieves was writing for young Indigenous readers. Dimaline hopes the story resonates with that generation.

"I really hope that they look at this and they see us as heroes, and having the answers and truly, that is what I believe," she said.