The Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley, was mentioned by one of my students in my Young Adult Literature class this past quarter as a book both by and about an indigenous voice from the Ojibwe tribe. It caught my attention because I have read several books set within the same locale (Sault St. Marie, in Michigan’s upper peninsula) and culture (Anishinaabe), though none that made that culture a central feature of the plot, and none written by a person from within the Ojibwe tribe, so I was particularly interested.
The first part of the book does a wonderful job of immersing the reader in the protagonist’s current life and giving the background necessary to set the scene and understand the issues. Daunis Fontaine is the product of a daughter from a wealthy white family who falls for a charismatic Objibwe hockey player, but her origins are something of a scandal, since her mother’s family forbade the relationship and her father ended up with someone from his tribe, who made a rather calculated play for him and also got pregnant, with the result that Daunis has a half-brother, Levi, who is almost her same age. Her mother courageously insisted, after Daunis was born, that she not be kept by her white family from her Ojibwe roots, so Daunis has grown up a part of both cultures, although she identifies more closely as one of the Anishinaabe, embracing native values both religious and secular.
The author also effectively embeds her story in the racism and atrocities historically visited on the tribes, as well as being immensely informative about such topics as traditional medicine, rituals and ceremonies, tribal elders and councils, contemporary politics, and the sense of family and community that characterize this culture; and she (mostly) manages to do so without being too didactic.
She uses the vehicle of a new boy at school, a recruit for the hockey team who needs to be introduced to all the nuances of life in the “Soo,” and has Daunis’s half-brother Levi, captain of the team, designate Daunis as Jamie Johnson’s “ambassador” who will tell him what he needs to know. The text is thus salted with indigenous words, concepts, and teachings that are explained by Daunis from within that context.
All of this makes the book sound more like an educational piece of nonfiction than a complex and multilayered mystery, but the wealth of scene-setting detail actually makes the puzzle to which Daunis is addressing herself much more plausible and compelling.
Daunis was supposed to be on her way up to Ann Arbor to start her college career at the University of Michigan, but two personal tragedies—the death by overdose of her beloved Uncle David, and her maternal grandmother’s debilitating stroke—keep her at home, with a plan to enroll instead in the local community college so as to be there to support her rather fragile mother through these twin losses. One person who is thrilled that she’s staying is her best friend, Lily, who will now be attending college with her.
They say tragedies always come in threes, and as a devastating event shocks Daunis into realizing that there is something dark destroying her native community from within, it is revealed to her that there are also outside interests attempting to solve the dual mysteries of addiction and suspicious deaths that are plaguing the people of Sugar Island; she makes the pivotal decision to get involved with ferreting out that solution.
The story is tense and suspenseful, with a protagonist facing many complications—perhaps too many. There is so much going on within this plot and surrounding this one person: Daunis’s biracial identity, her sick grandmother and dead uncle and father, her best friend’s meth-addicted boyfriend, her inexplicably ended hockey career, her new boyfriend’s secrets…it’s a lot. I do think the author does a good job of keeping all the balls in the air, but perhaps it would have been a better story with a few of these details ironed out of it. Because Daunis (and the author) has so much to juggle, some parts of the book become repetitive as the reader is reminded several times of the various elements in play. This is a first-time author with a slight tendency to over-explain, with the result that there are a few jarring moments in the book when Daunis suddenly seems to channel a third-person voice that is commenting on the action from an omniscient place outside the story line. A little more editorial notice should have been paid.
Having said all that, it truly is a riveting and emotionally realistic read, with a wealth of detail about the Anishinaabe peoples that you won’t stumble across in many places, and I applaud the author for managing to write a gripping tale while including such a rich, in-depth setting for it. This is definitely a book to add to your YA reading list.
In case it wasn’t made plain by my description of the story, there are many gritty, explicit events in this book that may prove overwhelming for the sensitive, so keep that in mind when recommending it—it’s definitely for older teen readers, not the middle school crowd.