what i'm reading: the marrow thieves, the glass beads

Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves, winner of multiple Canadian awards, is a brilliant book -- and a frightening one. Set in a future Canada after climate change has devastated the planet, Indigenous people are being hunted. The government believes Indigenous people are useful for survival. "Recruiters" kidnap them, and force them into "schools" where they are exploited -- to death.

In other words, it's a future dystopia that sounds and feels all too real.

The reader follows Frenchie, 16 years old and already a survivor of so much loss, as he finds a group of other Indigenous survivors, and gradually bonds with them as a new family. Each member of the group has a back story, each has challenges.

All are believable, heartrending in different ways. Some are resolved in ways that are uplifting, others in ways that are devastating. Each character feels real, complex, multi-dimensional. An astute reader may think they know where a certain relationship is going, based on dystopian novel cliches, but Dimaline is too good a writer to fall back on those templates.

The details of the why Indigenous people are being used, how they are being exploited, adds a touch of magic realism to the plot. After the climate devastation, with millions dead and society struggling to rebuild, white people have lost the ability to dream. And without dreams, they have lost the will to survive. The government believes that the DNA of Indigenous people holds the cure, and is forcibly extracting their bone marrow.

But is this magic realism, or has the government stumbled on an Indigenous way of knowing and tried to harness it to science (or maybe pseudo-science), to exploit it for larger gain? The purpose and origin of dreams are different in an Indigenous worldview. This is left for the reader to ponder.

The chilling storyline also weaves in echoes of the Residential Schools, and the time -- not so very long ago -- when Indigenous children were kidnapped, exploited, and met a spiritual, psychological, and sometimes physical, death. Every Canadian (and hopefully anyone else) reading this book would understand the connection, yet the historical references never stand out uncomfortably.

The Marrow Thieves is generally classified as a young-adult novel, since the main character is a teen. These days, most YA books include some gay characters, as a matter of course. In The Marrow Thieves, this is particularly well done, as an Indigenous man who is one of the leaders of the group of survivors tells his own story, which involves his husband. And although we're long past the time that this should be remarkable, to this reader, at my age, it is and will always be remarkably beautiful.

The Marrow Thieves is a very good book -- engrossing, heartbreaking, uplifting, frightening.

Glass Beads by Dawn Dumont takes place very much in the present, but in a world few non-Native people may know. The story follows the trials and tribulations of four First Nations young adults (who refer to themselves as Native, which is very common in Canada) making their way in the mainstream world.

They are in school or not in school, working or not working, drinking alcohol or abstaining, loving and trusting or hiding their hearts, making good decisions and bad. In other words, they are living their lives. But they are First Nations people, so their stories contain all the cultural and political implications that would imply. As in The Marrow Thieves, here another Indigenous Canadian writer tells stories that illustrate themes, without ever letting the themes overwhelm the story. It's beautifully done.

The best part of Glass Beads, to me, is the humour. There's a lot of casual humour, sometimes self-deprecating, or a funny internal monologue, or a bit of head-shaking sarcasm about a bizarre but ordinary situation. I love when humour is used in decidedly not-funny circumstances, whether it's a coping mechanism or just the human ability to laugh at ourselves. Because I prefer to read books "cold", I didn't know that the author, a Cree woman from Saskatchewan, is also a stand-up comedian who has worked many major venues. (She's also an actor and playwright.) I loved learning that Dumont does comedy professionally. It makes perfect sense.

Glass Beads is called a collection of linked stories, but I disagree. To me, it's a novel. The 20 sections -- which take place over two decades, from the 1990s through the early 2000s --  read like chapters of a whole, not stand-alone stories. I don't read contemporary short stories, and wouldn't have normally have tried this book; it was promoted in my library's first "One Book, One Community" program. If you enjoy an episodic novel with interesting characters and a view into another culture, Glass Beads is a good read.

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