By Nithya Ramcharan
Today we’re pleased to welcome Angeline Boulley to the WNDB blog to discuss her YA novel Firekeeper’s Daughter, out March 2, 2021! The cover art was illustrated by Rich Deas, an Ojibwe artist. Angeline Boulley was a 2019 We Need Diverse Books mentee and worked with author Francisco X. Stork.
Debut author Angeline Boulley crafts a groundbreaking YA thriller about a Native teen who must root out the corruption in her community, for readers of Angie Thomas and Tommy Orange.
Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.
The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.
Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home.
Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
What kind of research did you conduct to write Firekeeper’s Daughter?
I did quite a bit of research. I think the one thing that seems to capture people’s imagination is that I did learn how to make meth and how to identify clandestine meth labs by attending a workshop at the police state academy in Michigan. I had established contact at Lake Superior State University with a professor who is in law enforcement. This was maybe six or seven years ago.
Just in the course of telling him about my book, about the manuscript, he offered to connect me with people he knew at the police state academy. That was a bit of a surprising revelation—that when your sources realize that you’re the real deal and that you’re serious about telling a fact-based, plausible story, they are forthcoming in connecting you with additional sources, and that’s what this professor did. I was the only non-law-enforcement officer at the training, and it was eye-opening to experience.
There was also a friend that I met through a friend, who’s Native and a retired FBI agent. Once you have that initial meeting and you see that one another is authentic and you establish a relationship, then it’s relaxing and revealing. Then he put me in contact with other FBI agents and IRS agents that he knew. It was just really wonderful to have that type of research, where I could ask questions and make sure that the story I was writing was completely plausible from a law enforcement and federal prosecution standpoint.
Why did you choose to set the time frame of the novel in the early 2000s?
Ooh, I’m really glad you asked because I have very specific reasons for that. First of all, that’s when meth production really exploded across the country. Second, that’s when tribal casinos were especially lucrative. They’ve since faced some competition, and the market shares are different now, but in the early 2000s, it was kind of like, gravy time for a lot of Native casinos. I can especially speak for Michigan—they really were doing quite well. And third, was GPS technology. I wanted to write a contemporary story, yet have some technology obstacles. I feel like if I write a story set today, everyone has a cell phone, and their cellphones are tracking, you know, everything everywhere. Then, in 2004, GPS technology was less precise—certainly on Sugar Island, where there was one Canadian cell phone tower, and maybe you hit it, and maybe you didn’t, and so that fit with the story.
Firekeeper’s Daughter delves into serious issues that affect Indigenous communities, and yet you deftly balance them with the intrigue of the novel’s central mystery. Why did you choose to frame your story as a thriller?
I thought that people would pick up the book for the thriller aspect, but when they turn that final page and close the book, what was going to stay with them was the themes of coming-of-age and grief and identity and justice, or rather, injustice. I think that positioning it as a thriller made sense to me because on the surface that’s what it is, but I always knew that deeper, it was the story of a woman finding her place in the world, realizing what all was involved in that world and how complex identity and justice can get. I want people to be outraged, I want them to pick up the book for one reason but for the book to never leave them because of these deeper reasons.
If Daunis hadn’t been a member of her tribe, or if the crime had taken place in a different location…all of these things seem so arbitrary, but for a person who is a victim of a crime—a Native woman—these are the things that are on her mind when it comes to how will she fare in the justice system, what should she expect.
How did you construct Daunis’s personality and her many interests, from biology to hockey?
She just kind of evolved. I’ve been working on this story for 10 years, so that means many page-worn rewrites. I just felt that with each draft I really got closer to this person who has interests that are not mine. Initially, maybe she resembled me and we had things in common, but with each draft, she became more complex. I needed to do more and more research because the things she cared about and had expertise in were not things I had expertise in. To be able to write her and her experiences, I really needed to delve into that research. Living in Sault Ste. Marie, I’m sorry, but if your kids aren’t playing hockey or figure skating, you have zero social life. It’s impossible to live in Sault Ste. Marie and not pick up something about hockey. I’ve never played hockey but my oldest son does, so living in a hockey town, that’s just something that you know.
One notable aspect of Firekeeper’s Daughter is the range of relationships Daunis shares with members of her community. How do these relationships shape Daunis and her story?
It’s like a bulls-eye or concentric circles, and certainly at the center of that is her aunt Teddie, her brother, her Ojibwe grandparents. She is a part of her Anishinaabe family.
She has felt like she’s been not enough in one community and not enough in the other. Her non-Native family viewed her Ojibwe identity as an obstacle or a detriment or something she had to overcome and prove that she was more than or better than.
There are people who feel that way, who grow up with these expectations when they’re of mixed heritage or biracial: Feeling like they have to overcome the negative perceptions of each side of their family, each aspect of their heritage. That’s such an unfair thing, but it’s a reality for so many people, feeling like they have to show that, you know, a Native girl can be this and that. I’ve experienced it as well.
Writing it in the first-person, present tense, and having the reader have that insight into Daunis’s exact feelings, how those hurt, and how she rolls with it I felt was the best way to shed some light on those thousand little depths of microaggressions that are a part of how she lives her life every day.
What do you want readers to understand from Daunis’s experiences and struggles as a young biracial Ojibwe woman?
I hope they find something about Daunis that they have in common with her. I want them to love her and feel for her and be outraged and cheer her on. If they can do that for her, maybe it widens their perspective of if they’ve never read a story with a Native protagonist or if they have preconceived ideas about Indigenous literature or what tribes are like today. I hope that her story, being so personal and in her head, helps convey a more complex, nuanced, realistic view of young Native women today.
Firekeeper’s Daughter is divided into four parts. What is the significance of naming each part after a direction?
As a writer, you learn about the three-act structure. But in our stories, in our medicine wheels, four is a very important number. They say you need to know what the rules are so you can break them. I felt like for everyone breaking stories down into a three-act structure, I needed to know that, but then they also know that in my culture, there’s a four-act structure, and each act has a different purpose. I really tried to use the Hero’s Journey, which sometimes you see visually depicted as a circle. I looked at our medicine wheel, which has four quadrants, and I thought, what if Daunis’s story is the Hero’s Journey in the context of our medicine wheel—what if it mirrored our medicine wheel teachings and also fit into the Hero’s Journey? It was really Indigenizing the Hero’s Journey, and that meant a four-act structure.
You often interspersed words from the Ojibwe language in the story, but unlike some books, you didn’t include a glossary at the end with direct translations and pronunciation guides. Did you have any reasons for integrating the language in this way?
I think that when you include a glossary, you’re automatically, for lack of a better word, white-censoring the book. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the Ojibwe language to be so organic to the story that you could figure out what the words meant by context. And yeah, I didn’t include a pronunciation guide. Part of that is—okay, this part might not be very nice—but how does it feel to not know how to pronounce things, or to wonder if you’re doing it correctly? Because that is the experience of so many people with English. My story is Ojibwe, and I’m putting the words in where they feel well-suited, but I’m not going to spoon-feed people about it. If you want to know the words, then do the work.
How did your experience as a WNDB mentee help you on your journey as a writer and in bringing Firekeeper’s Daughter to life?
It was phenomenal. It was a great experience. I was selected for it in 2019. I was paired with Francisco X Stork, who is the author of many books. Marcelo in the Real World is my favorite book of his. He would give me advice, sometimes we would email back and forth quite often. He read my full manuscript and offered me critique in sections. He took each act and gave me his commentary. His feedback was really invaluable. At the end of our mentorship, he suggested that I send the manuscript to his agent, and as I was getting ready to query agents, I included his agent on my shortlist. Now Francisco and I share an agent, and she really was the best fit for me. Without We Need Diverse Books, I don’t think she would have been on my radar at that time. His making that introduction landed me the most perfect agent for me. She kept such a stellar reputation in the literary world and her instincts are spot-on. Being represented by her certainly helped me in my book auction.
Do you have any recommendations for those who enjoyed Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Indigenous authors or otherwise?
Oh, definitely. My recommendations are not just American writers but also First Nations authors. For example, in Canada, Eden Robinson’s Trickster. Also, my favorite book of 2019 was The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline—it’s got dystopia, it’s futuristic, it’s rooted in our language, it’s got so many layers. Honestly, that’s one of my favorite books.
In the US: Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Hearts Unbroken, that’s a really good book. And then, I like some crossover books that are marketed to adults, but I think they also would appeal to teens. Two of my favorite authors are Erika T. Wurth and Marcie Rendon. Rendon writes the Cash Blackbear mystery series. The first book is called Murder on the Red River, and the second one is called Girl Gone Missing. Marcie is just this incredible writer. Erika Wurth’s book, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend—I believe chapter one of that book should be taught in every MFA program because it has such a specific voice. I think it’s a work of beauty, it’s so raw.
I’m really curious to do more reading and to find more of those emerging Indigenous authors because there are those writers out there in our tribal communities that are plugging away on their stories. That’s what I’m really excited about: Finding those emerging writers and what can we do to support them and the stories they want to tell.
Nithya Ramcharan is a high school senior from New Orleans. She loves reading and writing fantasy and science-fiction stories. When she isn’t busy with schoolwork, she also loves art, music, playing with her dogs, and dreaming of all the places she would love to visit. Diversity in literature is something she is passionate about, as it was relatively scarce when she was young and its lack impacted her writing and outlook negatively.