The only thing more exciting than the fact that author Angeline Boulley has followed up her bestselling, award-winning debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter, with a companion novel is that actor Isabella Star LaBlanc narrates the audiobook. LaBlanc, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota tribal nation, takes a break from filming season four of “True Detective” (in Iceland!) to share her thoughts on the communal power of audiobooks like Warrior Girl Unearthed (11.5 hours), and the joys and challenges of bringing the story of Perry Firekeeper-Birch to life.
You also narrated Angeline Boulley’s first book, Firekeeper’s Daughter. How did you feel about Warrior Girl Unearthed as you began to read it for the first time?
I’m a Firekeeper’s Daughter superfan first, and a Firekeeper’s Daughter audiobook narrator second. And as soon as I started reading Warrior Girl Unearthed, I knew Angeline had done it again. It felt like returning home. I fell in love with Perry immediately. From the first chapter, I was excited to go on this journey with her.
What is your relationship with author Angeline Boulley like, especially in the time since you’ve recorded Firekeeper’s Daughter?
Angeline is the best! After my first day of recording Warrior Girl Unearthed, I texted her a little selfie and let her know how thrilled I was to be back in the saddle. When it comes down to it, I really am just trying to do right by her. Angeline is such a special person and writer. Her energy is infectious. We had so much fun doing press for Firekeeper’s Daughter. I count myself lucky to be in her orbit and to benefit from her support. I really owe her so much.
Tell me a bit about transforming Warrior Girl Unearthed into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I was so honored when I was asked back to narrate Warrior Girl Unearthed, but I knew logistically it was going to be a challenge. I’m currently shooting a TV series in Iceland, which has my schedule packed and unpredictable. I really wanted to make it work, so after lots of back and forth with my manager and Steve Wagner from Macmillan, we were able to figure out a remote recording setup and scheduled sessions on the days I’m not on set. So I guess the first big preparation was scheduling, which is not very exciting, but it did feel like a miracle that it worked out.
After we got the logistics ironed out, I really dove in—which for me means spending a lot of time with pronunciation and starting to identify voices. I find a lot of joy in the preparation leading up to recording. It’s always a little daunting, but there’s something so exhilarating about hearing the story in my head for the first time and figuring out how to actually make it sound like that.
What did you feel most strongly that it was important to get “right” as you narrated Boulley’s words in Warrior Girl Unearthed?
Definitely the language. The Anishinaabemowin is important not only to the storytelling but also to the characters and to the people these characters represent. I want my Ojibwe relatives to hear themselves in this. So I feel a huge responsibility to do the best I can to represent the language in a good way. Angeline and Macmillan, along with Michele Wellman-Teeple from Michigan State University, set me up with some amazing pronunciation resources.
I think the language is just as much a character as Perry, and I want to honor it that way. Before we began recording, I put out some tobacco to thank the language for letting me spend this time with it. That felt like the right place to begin.
What do you believe is the most rewarding thing that your performance brings to the listening experience of Warrior Girl Unearthed?
Firekeeper’s Daughter was my first ever audiobook. I had never narrated anything before that, and going in I knew pretty much nothing about the whole process. I have a lot more books and experience under my belt for this one, and it feels so rewarding to get to return to this world where it all began for me, and to now be able to offer up everything I’ve learned. I feel more in control of my work this time around, and my hope is that listeners will be able to hear that.
To listeners, it can sometimes feel like magic to hear a narrator move between dialogue and a lead character’s inner thoughts. What is your process when moving from Perry’s inner world to external interactions?
Perry is a teenager, and I think being a teenager is a lot about reconciling your inner and outer worlds. Something I notice with Perry is that her external interactions often exude confidence in a way her internal monologue doesn’t. I think there’s something really vulnerable in the way she talks to herself, and something really powerful in the way she interacts with the world. I really try to let both those parts of her peek through and to be heard in conversation with each other.
As you read Warrior Girl Unearthed, what did you take away from the experience? Did you discover anything, either about the world Boulley depicts or about yourself?
I found myself left with big feelings about how the ways in which we take care of ourselves help us take care of our people. I love how the characters Angeline writes have very unique passions and strengths they honor and offer to the world. Some might argue that I’m already grown, but I want to be Perry and Daunis when I grow up.
Boulley’s books reflect an exciting shift in children’s and teen literature toward diversifying which stories are published and who gets to write them. What would books like Firekeeper’s Daughter and Warrior Girl Unearthed have meant to you when you were growing up?
I think it’s hard to overstate how much of an impact these books would have had on me as a young reader. It really is a gift to see not only yourself but also your community represented with so much heart. As a young Indigenous person it’s easy to feel lonely, like so much of the world doesn’t understand what matters to you. I know I would have devoured these books, and I would have held them with me as companions while I navigated a lot of the things these characters experience. How lovely it would’ve been to have these reminders that girls like me get to be exceptional, and be loved, and save the world.
With Warrior Girl Unearthed in mind, what do audiobooks offer that a book can’t?
I think there’s something communal about audiobooks. Whereas reading can feel beautifully individual, there’s something special about the idea that with an audiobook, each listener is hearing the same voices come alive. It’s almost an equalizer between listeners; it creates an inherently shared experience.
I loved hearing that people listened to Firekeeper’s Daughter with their families. So much of the culture I come from is centered on gathering together and sharing stories. Audiobooks feel like a new medium to do that. We can listen to stories together, whether we’re in the same room or miles apart.
In addition to your work as an audiobook narrator, you’ve also acted on stage and in movies and TV. What are some of the unique challenges and pleasures of audiobooks as compared to those other types of performing? How do you feel your work in other media informs your narration work?
I think all of my work informs each other. I feel like if I removed even one piece of the puzzle, one tool from the toolbox, I wouldn’t be the same artist. I’ve played all sorts of characters with different dialects, different ages, different dispositions. I feel like I draw on them to flesh out these books. So many of the voices I use to narrate come from characters I’ve played.
And now I feel my narration feeding back to my acting. I think one of the most challenging parts when I started narrating was learning how to act without being seen. So many character choices in visual mediums can be solely in your body. Narrating has allowed me to explore my voice, and in doing so has offered a tool to do more with less. I’m able to find a lot more stillness in my work on screen now.
What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
That I get to redo as much as I want! When people hear I do audiobooks, the first question is usually, “How can you read without messing up?” The answer is, I mess up a lot, and then a lovely engineer punches me back in and I do it again, and sometimes again after that. So the job actually has very little to do with reading a lot of words perfectly in one go.
Who in your life has had the biggest impact on your work as a narrator?
I don’t think I can pick just one. I think most of the people in my life turn up in my narration in some way. You’ll probably hear them in this book.
What do you believe is your greatest strength as a narrator?
My cultural vocabulary. What I might not know about technical voice acting, I do know about Native people. I can hear our voices, our rhythms, our laughter. I know about our ways of connecting to one another across tribes and regions. I find so much joy in narrating specifically for Native authors, because it feels like I was born for it. I grew up with these stories.