If you haven’t picked up a book in a while, be sure to add this one to your list. Classified as a young adult novel “Firekeeper’s Daughter” is truly a book for adults as well.
With “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” Angeline Boulley has done for the Native American community what Harper Lee did for the South with “To Kill a Mockingbird” - tell a story that will resonate with the people who live in this community and have broader indications for society as a whole as we seek to better understand each other, especially minorities.
You’ll have a hard time putting down “Firekeeper’s Daughter” once you begin reading it. It’s a tale that is told by Daunis Fontaine, a young woman who is biracial, with an Ojibwe father and a white mother. Daunis is smart, attractive and a gifted hockey player. She is tasked with getting to the bottom of a meth ring that is plaguing the Ojibwe community and killing its youth. Throughout the story, she is torn between helping out the FBI and protecting her tribe - and keeping secrets, lots of secrets. As Daunis says, “I began as a secret and then a scandal.”
Like any work of fiction, Boulley took literary license to create this thriller, adding real estate to Sugar Island while still keeping it familiar to those of us who live in the Eastern Upper Peninsula (EUP). You’ll feel like you’re right there with Daunis as she crosses the St. Mary’s River on the Sugar Island Ferry, jogs past Lake Superior State University while viewing the International Bridge and the wide expanse of the St. Mary’s River and plays hockey at Chi Mukwa Big Bear Arena.
“I loved how it was about our area,” says Laura Downwind, a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and mother of three girls. “As you’re reading the book, you’re picturing pieces of our area; and having the tribal community on Sugar Island, that’s something we can relate to because so many of us originated on the Island.”
Downwind, who gifted her two teenage girls with Boulley’s book, mentioned the positive impact the book will have on Native and non-Native youth in the area.
“It’s about finding happiness within yourself, accepting all pieces of yourself and understanding that there are other people who have gone through some really tough things too,” says Downwind. “Knowing Indian communities support each other, you’re always going to have your family.” She says the book also opened the eyes of non-Native friends.
“It was gratifying to hear nonNative friends of mine comment on Facebook that they remember being surrounded by tribal kids in high school yet didn’t know much about their culture until they read Angeline’s book,” says Downwind.
Daunis, who excels at science and traditional medicines, is sought after by the FBI to help investigate a new type of meth that is being mixed with a local hallucinatory mushroom found on Duck Island. Throughout the book, she tiptoes along in a relationship with a young man nearly her age who is working undercover with the FBI. The two are attracted to each other yet have to maintain a professional distance, which adds a romantic tension that no doubt captivates young adult readers.
The characters in the book will be relatable to anyone living in the EUP who is familiar with our mixed heritage and ethnicity.
“Daunis’s family is really a composite of the families in Sault Ste. Marie,” says Boulley, who was the Director of the Office of Indian Education in the U.S. Department of Education before becoming a full-time author.
“Her father and the firekeeper family is Ojibwe from Sugar Island. Her maternal grandmother comes from ‘French fur traders who have streets named after them,’ and her maternal grandfather’s family was part of the wave of Italian stonecutters who emigrated to build the hydroelectric power canal and the Soo Locks,” explains Boulley. “I really wanted to personify the major influences in Sault Ste. Marie - the story about her finding her identity and sense of belonging in her community.”
The other aspect readers will really enjoy about the book is what impressed her big city editors: the reference to the elders who play a big part in the story. The elders keep Daunis grounded in her Native American traditions and provide support for her at every turn. Downwind says that a lot of the teachings and guidance from elders is passed on via stories. Boulley shares some beautiful stories and imagery, through her characters, that make the book all the more interesting to read for all ages.
“I’m surprised at how many adults are enjoying the book,” says Boulley. “People who are not Native can still identify with a story that is set in a tribal community. I’m delighted at how many people can connect with the characters in the book.”
Like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and another regional classic, “Anatomy of a Murder” (also set in the UP), “Firekeeper’s Daughter” is headed to the big screen and most likely the annals of classic literature. Film rights were acquired by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions for a streaming series on Netflix. Boulley will serve as an executive producer and script consultant for the project, although a timeline has yet to be set for the release date.
Meanwhile, Boulley is working on another book that will no doubt include some of the themes that have made this book such a huge success. She is also preparing to visit some schools and colleges this fall to talk to students and listen to their input on issues that are prevalent in the book, most notably finding your identity, sexual assault and teen dating violence, and the lack of justice for far too many Native American victims of crime.
“Her tribal community is so proud of her,” says Downwind of Boulley’s achievement and new found fame in the literary world. “We’re her biggest fan club. She said she was going to do something, she did it and it was such a big success.”
Copies of “Firekeeper’s Daughter” can be purchased locally at Island Books & Crafts in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.
By Neil Moran