After blockbuster book The Marrow Thieves, 'peer pressure' led Cherie Dimaline to pen sequel Hunting by Stars
'Young Indigenous readers reached out, wanting to know what happened to these characters they loved'
This interview originally aired on Oct. 23, 2021.
Bestselling YA novel The Marrow Thieves was supposed to be a one-off, self-contained book. Cherie Dimaline thought she could walk away from the story and its open ending — but her fans had other ideas.
The Marrow Thieves, originally published in 2017 has taken on a life of its own: it was the #1 bestselling Canadian book in the country's independent bookstores in 2018; it was defended by singer Jully Black on Canada Reads 2018; it is currently being adapted into a TV series; it was named one of Time magazine's top 100 YA novels of all time; and it won several awards, including the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.
Dimaline won the 2021 Writers' Trust Engel Findley Award. The $25,000 recognizes the accomplishments of a fiction writer in the middle of her career.
Dimaline, a Georgian Bay Métis writer, would subsequently be invited to Indigenous communities, reserves and Canadian schools across the country to talk about the breakout book. It was such a fan favourite that when she would tell classroom audiences she wasn't planning to write a sequel, the kids would boo her, Dimaline said in her interview with Shelagh Rogers.
That strong type of fan response followed her online, she added.
"Petitions were started and sent to me. There were social media accounts opened in the characters names and then they would send me a direct message. So 'French' was contacting me on Instagram, saying, 'Wow, what's next? Please don't leave me out here.'"
And now with The Marrow Thieves sequel, Hunting by Stars, Dimaline hopes the book is something that her fans will enjoy.
Hunting by Stars which was nominated in the best YA book category for the 2022 Crime Writers of Canada Awards, takes place in the world of The Marrow Thieves, a post-apocalyptic North America where only Indigenous people have the ability to dream. Residential schools are re-established to capture and hold Indigenous people, and search for the secrets to dreaming in their bones.
I normally don't advocate for caving in to peer pressure. But in this case, I will say that was a huge part of it!
Fan favourite teen protagonist French is back as well.
In The Marrow Thieves, French lost his family to the residential schools and found a new family to travel with, while dodging the "Recruiters." In Hunting by Stars, French embarks on a new adventure, one that leads him to learn more about himself and the dangerous world he lives in.
In hindsight, writing the sequel was inevitable for Dimaline. While the characters still lived on in her mind, she felt it was "unfair" to not continue the story and show what happens next.
"A lot of young Indigenous readers reached out, really wanting to know for sure what happened to these characters that they loved," she said. "I normally don't advocate for caving in to peer pressure. But in this case, I will say that was a huge part of it!"
WATCH | The Marrow Thieves book trailer, produced for Canada Reads:
The saga continues
Dimaline admits that writing Hunting by Stars was far from an easy process.
"After spending so much time writing the various characters and then talking to over 100,000 kids about the story, they had become real to me. There was comfort in that, but it was terrifying," she said.
"It took some effort to do that thing that all writers need to do, which is shut out the readers from the process of creating before you can invite them into the home that you've created."
Young Indigenous readers reached out, really wanting to know for sure what happened to these characters that they loved.
Hunting by Stars catches up with the story of French and the group of Indigenous people who have become his family. They're still on the run with even more obstacles, challenges and dangers.
French is a character Dimaline loves writing. For the sequel, she wanted to ensure that his journey had the right amount of difficulty. French has his challenges and makes mistakes along the way.
"I love that he's still a kid in a lot of ways and a young man in a lot of other ways — but that he is still doing that thing where he's running away from something instead of toward something," she said.
"When I started to think about the sequel, I thought, 'French can take this.' I'm confident because I never want people to lose hope. There always has to be a fighting chance. And I thought, he's a damn good fighter. I'm going to throw him in."
Rose from The Marrow Thieves is back as well.
"Rose is the navigator — but not the navigator that sits back and looks at the map, but the one with the feeling and feels the pull and goes for it. She's very adept out in the wilderness, which is not very wild to her. It's home to her and she has a really interesting journey," she said.
Hunting by Stars is as much Rose's story as it is French's, Dimaline said.
I love Rose because she does the thing that I wish I could have done when I was a young woman, which is to live free of shame.
"Rose was that ability for me to imagine young femininity without any sort of roles being imposed on her — and of course, we see roles trying to be imposed upon her — and the ways in which she rebels against them," Dimaline explained.
"I love Rose because she does the thing that I wish I could have done when I was a young woman, which is to live free of shame. I knew as soon as I started writing that her voice was going to come through and she was going to be one of the narrators."
Meant to write
All the Ontario-born Dimaline has ever wanted to do since she was a kid was to write. The registered and claimed member of the Métis Nation of Ontario hails from the Georgian Bay Métis Community. It is this specificity — and connection to identity — that shapes all of her stories.
"My community is across the bay from an Ontario town called Penetanguishene. There was one road that would lead from the town to the community and back," she told The Next Chapter in 2019.
LISTEN | Cherie Dimaline discusses The Marrow Thieves with Shelagh Rogers:
Her first book, Red Rooms, was published in 2007, and her novel The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy was released in 2013. In 2014, she was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts, and became the first Aboriginal Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library. Her book A Gentle Habit was published in August 2016.
Being an Indigenous writer is an absolute gift.
"Being an Indigenous writer is an absolute gift. In my community storytellers are considered leaders, so it's a position with a lot of responsibility. It's a blessing because I get to spend time with so many storytellers and their stories. I get to do that globally now and represent my specific community and my specific story," she told CBC Books in 2020.
Indigeneity and a post-apocalyptic world
In many respects, writing Hunting by Stars was as much for her as it was for her audience, notes Dimaline. In writing the novel, she moved back to Ontario after spending some time living in British Columbia. Hunting by Stars took her back home, in the literal and physical sense.
"I always go home when I am trying to imagine how these characters feel as I can only use my own experience. There's something about the forests around Penetanguishene — they seem to be lit no matter what time you go into it," she said.
Through my mom I am from the Penetanguishene Halfbreed community (Georgian Bay Métis)- full of stories, music & great hunters. This is my heart. I was lucky to grow up here & to live here now. I wish you all love, family & community in 2021, as beautiful & chaotic as this one. <a href="https://t.co/TwoJWSHtnM">pic.twitter.com/TwoJWSHtnM</a>—@cherie_dimaline
"I was missing the light from the forest that I found here. It's because this is my home. This is where generations of my family are from."
According to Dimaline, what connects the characters in both Hunting by Stars and The Marrow Thieves are the themes of survival and community.
They're running toward community, even if it means they have to build it.
"They are running toward each other. They are running toward that feeling of where they belong. They're running toward community, even if it means they have to build it," she said.
And fear not: while Hunting by Stars was just released, Dimaline says that she is already working on the next book set in the same world.
"Once I got past my fear of going back into this place and wondering if I can do it justice, I started mapping a route for them," Dimaline said, adding that there are still more adventures for French, Rose and the other characters to face.
"They're all running for that place that shines just for them. And if they can get there together, what is an apocalypse in the face of that?"
WATCH | Cherie Dimaline discusses the power of YA fiction: