Frenchie is barely a teenager when he is separated from his brother and left to fend for himself, running from The Recruiters. His father disappeared years earlier and his mother is gone. Frenchie meets up with a group of other travellers, a ragtag gang ranging from seven-year-old Riri to their elder, Minerva. They are pushing north, seeking safety and community, always on the lookout for those who want to hunt them for their very marrow.
This is a dystopian young adult fiction set in the near future. Climate change has changed the boundaries of city and country, as well as the land itself. People have been pushed into cities where disease and violence reigns. Most dangerous of all, people have stopped dreaming. Only the Indigenous peoples have kept their dreams and it isn’t long until they are rounded up and imprisoned in schools where, rumour has it, they are harvested for their marrow.
Sound familiar? Obviously it’s meant to and Dimaline draws broadly on the real life history of residential schools in Canada and the atrocities committed there. The connections aren’t subtle which reminded me frequently that this is a YA fic. That isn’t a bad thing though and for many readers this will be a powerful way to introduce them to a terrible period of Canadian history. And it serves as a reminder to all readers that we are not so far away from guilt as we like to believe ourselves to be.
The plot is fast-paced and Dimaline does an excellent job of weaving in the various characters’ backstories. Their leader, Miig, is one of the only people to have escaped from a school and he becomes a secondary father to Frenchie as his story is slowly revealed.
Frenchie himself wasn’t a very compelling character to me. He’s in love with a girl in their group but we never get to see much depth in their relationship or what he really loves about her. They have dumb teenage drama which, fair enough, they are dumb teenagers but it distracted from the more interesting characters and action around them.
As well, the science seems weak. As far as I know, we are able to extract marrow from people currently without killing them and it seems like it would make sense to keep those people alive if you need them to survive. (I hope it goes without saying that extracting bone marrow without permission is wrong no matter how you do it.) At the same time, the science and accuracy of it all felt less important to me in the larger story of loss. Of what it is to have your language, your culture, and your very essence stolen.
Dimaline’s strength lies in the world building and in her creation of a horrifying apocalypse that lies in true history. I can’t help but hope there might be a sequel to this one.