Review of Hunting by Stars
Dimaline, Cherie. Hunting by Stars. Abrams, 2021.
Content Warning: This novel and review discuss Residential Schools in Canada, which may be distressing or triggering for some readers. It also contains some spoilers for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.
Hunting by Stars is the highly anticipated follow up to Cherie Dimeline’s (Métis) 2017 novel The Marrow Thieves. Both novels tell the story of a dystopian Canada after people lose the ability to dream. A lack of dreams eventually leads to a lack of sleep and, by extension, a fundamentally changed society. However, in the midst of collapse, settlers in Canada learn that Indigenous people are still actively dreaming; in an effort to determine why Indigenous peoples still have access to their dreams, the Canadian government develops centers to imprison, study, and experiment on Indigenous individuals. The system is based on the residential schools common in the 19th and 20th centuries, where Indigenous youth were separated from their communities and cultures, had their hair cut, and were violently “educated” according to Western cultural standards. In fact, the Native characters throughout both books refer to each of these centers as schools; some of them were built atop the bones of the old residential schools, themselves covering the bones of Indigenous youths. Settler society and systems of power repeat themselves again.
While The Marrow Thieves introduces its readers to a cadre of characters that comprise a found family as they run from recruiters, soldiers sent to capture Indigenous people to take them to the schools, Hunting by Stars focuses more on the violent settler system itself. In many ways, this is a book about the ways settler colonial education extends tendrils into young Indigenous minds in an effort to drive out their communities and cultural ontologies. Of course, it is equally about the violence enacted upon Indigenous peoples in general to extract seemingly necessary resources, in this case dreams.
In The Marrow Thieves, readers follow Frenchie, a Métis teenager, as he watches his brother get kidnapped by recruiters. That same brother, Mitch, returns in Hunting by Stars as a brainwashed worker for the settlers in the schools. As Frenchie continues to resist the violent invasions into his mind and body, Mitch continually reminds him of the ways that the school’s program helped him and how it will help Frenchie and others. After all, as Mitch admits, it’s better to be working for the schools than to be killed in them. Throughout the novel, Frenchie must toe the line between working for the schools as an act and becoming conditioned to believe the worst in his communities because of the school’s violent indoctrination, a balancing act made poignant by his found family outside the school and his brother inside urging him toward assimilation.
The school, the stand-in for the systemic oppression of Indigenous communities, doles out violence again and again as the program works to keep “residents” calm and obedient. In some of the most difficult passages from either book, Hunting by Stars describes torture designed to claw into the psyche of “residents” and consume them from the inside out. As Frenchie undergoes much of this torture, his hopes and dreams, fears and desires are laid bare as he confronts the traumas he’s faced and the utter loneliness he is made to feel through complete isolation. The system and the individuals who design and run it understand that a central goal of the program must be driving a wedge between “residents” and their families and communities. Many of Frenchie’s strengths in The Marrow Thieves are found in his family; his weaknesses are exploited in Hunting by Stars when he is separated from them.
While Frenchie’s perspective was the sole one in The Marrow Thieves, Hunting by Stars cycles through the perspectives of various characters, many of whom readers already know. Miigwans (Miig), the stand-in father figure for Frenchie and his partner Isaac take the found family away from the recruiters to protect the others while Rose, Frenchie’s love interest, begins the journey to the nearest school to try to rescue Frenchie. For tension’s sake, she is accompanied by Derrick, another boy around her age who is also vying for her affections.
Thus, much like its predecessor, Hunting by Stars is a book about communal connection. It examines the search for connection against the power of huge systems: settler colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism. It explores the fallout of violently forced disconnection. In all of this, it never forgets that systems are maintained by people and people are blinded by systems. In as much as systems are maintained, they are often done so through a process of blinding: a skewing of knowledge or understanding, a cloaking of truth, a redirection of desire. Oppressed communities then come to serve the larger system that continually keeps them oppressed; this is most clear in the character of Mitch.
Throughout these broad conversations that examine the social systems dictating our lives, Hunting by Stars considers local levels of relationality and oppression. From alliances found in the most unexpected of places to the appropriation of Indigenous cultures by New Agism in the time of dreamlessness, Dimaline takes particular care to show that love and demoralization both come in the closest of spaces. She also makes sure that we continually remember that loss happens here as well–marking it as personal, bodily as much as it is communal and collective.
While this particular novel, and its predecessor, might see most use in Indigenous literature or science fiction courses, there is applicability broadly through the analogous ways this novel gestures toward the historical backdrop of settler colonialism in Canada and the United States. One of the best pedagogical applications lies in the central metaphor of the novel itself—residential schools in Canada. Both The Marrow Thieves and Hunting by Stars are young adult novels that circle around the generational trauma caused by the residential school system and the ways by which Western education has had deleterious effects on Indigenous communities broadly. From the specifics of the residential school system to the broader connections across settler colonial policies, Indigenous language revitalization, and communal ceremony and connection, Hunting by Stars could play a pivotal role in many different cultural or historical studies courses.
At its very foundation, then, Hunting by Stars is a book about resistance and remembering. As Miig notes, “They never win when we remember.” The act of remembering and connecting is both about resisting and building a world that looks better than the one that Frenchie, Rose, and the others are living in now. Centrally, the book returns to the responsibility of ancestors—those that came before and will come after. Dimaline returns to the central mantra: “Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one who’ll be alive to live it.” In the end, community, language, and land are what matter fundamentally.
Jeremy M. Carnes is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Central Florida. He is working on his first book on comics by Indigenous creators and the affordances of comics as a visual medium for considering land-based practices by Indigenous communities. He is also co-editing a collection titled The Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural Politics of X-Men: The Animated Series with Nicholas E. Miller and Margaret Galvan. He is reviews editor for Studies in American Indian Literature.