For a book that was published in 2017, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves has been a staggeringly constant presence on the bestseller list.
Flip to the Canadian Fiction list on any given week, and there it will likely be: No. 6, No. 10, No. 8. And this is without, we must note, a Netflix show or Hollywood movie franchise attached to this dystopian tale of a world where global warming hasn’t just ravaged the planet, it’s stolen people’s ability to dream, leading to a pandemic of madness. (The sole exception to this affliction? Indigenous people, who are hunted for their marrow, believed to hold the cure to this dreamlessness.)
It is, by all accounts, a book whose popularity is fuelled by word-of-mouth enthusiasm, because it’s the kind of thing you read with a page-turning obsession, and then immediately press into the hands of at least eight people you know. It is also one of those news-cycle-adjacent books that tends to see a lift in sales when current events – climate change-fuelled wildfires, the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools – overlap with the themes it explores.
What’s even more impressive about this book is that it’s published by an indie house, Cormorant Books, which specializes in new and emerging Canadian writers. In fact, publisher Marc Côté first encountered Dimaline’s work in 2014, when she applied for a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, for which Cormorant recommended her. “On the application form, which we returned to her, I wrote ‘Please send us a finished manuscript,’” recalls Côté.
A year later (the Thursday before Good Friday, in fact), Dimaline did exactly that, writing in the body of the e-mail, “Please read this quickly.” That led to a phone call, which he recalls vividly to this day.
“I could hear in her voice the determination to publish her book, but also the need. It wasn’t a personal need, it was something greater,” he says. “I hung up, read the manuscript immediately, and contacted her that same day.” A formal offer followed shortly thereafter, although Dimaline did stand her ground when he asked her to change her characters’ ages, explaining that it was specifically intended to be a YA novel so that schools would make it part of their course materials.
Here, we chat with Côté about The Marrow Thieves, which has had 32 printings as of August this year. (Yes, that is a lot.)
Do you have any theories about this book’s enduring appeal?
The reasons The Marrow Thieves continues to sell are simple: it’s a great story with characters readers come to care about; It’s a great novel, a necessary novel; and it speaks to many people about our times in a narrative, set in future, dystopian time, that makes it possible for them to understand the history of colonization and genocide.
As a “book professional,” was there anything in particular about that first manuscript that you really remember standing out?
What stood out for me when I read the first draft of The Marrow Thieves was how well-conceived it was, how Cherie had pulled together all necessary elements for a novel together – plot, character, setting, the basics – with an unwavering, clear-eyed view of what her story was and how it was meant to be read. There was substance on the first page and all the way through to the last. There was purpose to the writing. She had married content to form almost perfectly.
As a reader, what resonates most with you in this work?
The profound sense of shame and fear. This was the first novel I had read that, although set in the future, made it possible for me to understand the fear that many, most, all Indigenous people had and have and continue to live with. I felt these things not in a guilt-inducing way. I felt them through empathy for the characters and their struggles – set in the not-too distant future, but entirely reflective of our not-so-distant past. I’m not saying I did not know these things; of course, I did. But I knew them intellectually, not emotionally. And, I think, the hopeful ending of the novel – many of the characters survive. A dystopian novel with a happy ending and one that really works.
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