You only have to read a few pages of Angeline Boulley’s debut YA novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter, to understand why 12 publishers engaged in a bidding war for it. It’s a gripping thriller about a young woman, Daunis Fontaine, who goes undercover for the FBI in order to expose who is trafficking drugs into the Ojibwe community where her deceased father’s family live but where she will never truly belong. Boulley is herself an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
You’ve long been a fan of Nancy Drew and similar mysteries. What draws you to mystery as a reader? Was that also what drew you to it as a writer?
I’ve always been drawn to the challenge of solving the riddle as early in the story as possible. As a reader, I strive to outsmart the mystery writer. Was that a clue or a red herring? Can I find a pattern in a suspect's behavior and then catch the quirk in the pattern? My goal as a mystery/thriller writer is to create a puzzle that intrigues, nay, consumes the reader while leaving them profoundly changed by and hopefully thankful for the experience.
The book plays a neat trick on readers. It begins as a quiet and emotional look at the inner life of a young woman and becomes a raw and gasp-inducing thriller that takes turns I never saw coming. The trick is that the book is actually both of those things the whole time. As you drafted and revised, did the novel always contain these two sides?
You’re right! It was always both a thriller/mystery and a coming-of-age/journey story. I knew from the start that Daunis and Jamie, her love interest, would be opposite sides of the same coin. Daunis has a multitude of identities, and Jamie’s lack of connection to his tribal community helps her realize that what she had always viewed as a negative is actually her strength.
The challenge in writing the story was that I didn’t know where it would fit. Was it YA or adult fiction? Was it a thriller, mystery or romance? Was it commercial or literary? When I’d share a draft with someone, it felt like a Rorschach test, because everyone perceived it differently. Finally, I had to tune out the external definitions and write the story I wanted to read.
“Writing a story that explores some of the many complex aspects of being Anishinaabe was my way of showing teens and young adults that I see them.”
You’ve talked about your journey to reconnect more deeply with your cultural identity as a Native woman, and you’ve also said it took you 10 years to write this book. Was writing Firekeeper’s Daughter part of that journey or a product of it?
I’ve always identified as an Ojibwe (or Chippewa) person, but I haven’t always understood what that meant. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about our family history, tribal history and federal Indian policy. This helped me understand why my dad made certain decisions, like not teaching me the language when I was a kid, and why my cultural identity felt complicated and determined by others.
Writing Firekeeper’s Daughter and having Daunis experience a similar journey was cathartic for me. But the book is also a product of that journey, because the final version of the manuscript was completed well after I had defined what being a Nish kwe, an Ojibwe woman, meant to me.
The book explores complex aspects of characters’ cultural identities. At one point Jamie tells Daunis, “It’s hard when being Native means different things depending on who’s asking and why.” What drew you to exploring these ideas?
My career has been primarily in Indian education. I’ve worked in different tribal communities in Michigan, including for my own tribe. I know many Native children and teens who grapple with their cultural identity, whether they’re enrolled or not. Writing a story that explores some of the many complex aspects of being Anishinaabe was my way of showing teens and young adults that I see them. I hope it starts conversations that increase awareness and understanding about cultural identity.
The language of the Ojibwe tribe plays a prominent role in the book. How did you decide how much Ojibwe you’d include in the book, and when and how you would use it?
With every draft, the language played a larger part in the story. Deciding when and how to include it felt organic. I had help with the language from my dad, cousins and other local speakers, including the director of the language immersion program at the tribal college. I decided to use the double-vowel system for the Ojibwe language in the book because it’s the system used by most of the online resources (especially the websites that include audio samples of the words). Dr. Margaret Noodin at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provided substantial assistance to me as well, including standardizing all of my phonetic spellings.
Your Twitter bio proudly proclaims your support for the Chicago Cubs, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that sports play a big role in the book. In fact, hockey is one of the few things that brings the entire community, both white and Native, together as fans and players. Have you played any hockey yourself?
Ha! I’ve never played hockey, and I can barely skate! But I am a hockey mom—my oldest son played in local leagues growing up and still plays pickup games with friends. In Sault Ste. Marie, ice rinks are the social hub. My tribe owns the Big Bear Arena, which has two rinks, one NHL-size and one Olympic-size. There are three more indoor rinks in town and countless outdoor ones. In the Upper Peninsula, makeshift backyard ice rinks are the equivalent of swimming pools. When you live in a town with more ice rinks than pizza places, you become functionally fluent in hockey.
Author photo of Angeline Boulley courtesy of Amber Boulley.