Review by Deborah Locke
A few weeks back an affable Dakota guy in Birchbark Books in Minneapolis said that “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley (Ojibwe) was a good book.
One test for a good book is the way it gnaws at you even after you put it down. If you stop reading and immediately calculate when and for how long before you can return to it, you’re reading a good book.
“Firekeeper’s Daughter” is an action-packed thriller that takes place in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. The protagonist, Daunis Fontaine, 18, is the daughter of an Ojibwe father and white French Canadian mother. She’s about to start college and with a gift for science, has a bright future. The joy Daunis should feel as she embarks on the next chapter of life is dimmed by the mysterious death of her Uncle David, a high school teacher, whose death is ruled a meth overdose.
Those who knew David well question this conclusion at the same time Daunis, a former high school hockey star, gets swept up in a FBI investigation to learn the source of an dangerous strain of meth that was produced on the reservation.
Consequently, Daunis lives a double life. She’s the caretaking daughter and granddaughter who attends community college, and she’s the FBI confidential informant whose purpose is to rid her community of criminals. She knows which plants growing on the reservation have medicinal use. Her job is to discover what additive from which mushroom fungus created a deadly drug. Her quest expands broadly from an early mushroom search in the woods to a complex web of interactions and an unexpected ending.
Nicely woven into this intense drama are cultural references: for example, the “Little People.” According to the story, these are small people who live in the forest who warn native people of danger. Also, Boulley uses a lot of Ojibwe language, and it feels right. Sometimes a non-English word on a page stops the reader flat. That never happens here because the context is so clear.
Another strength: Boulley uses her characters to give voice to opinions about the pros and cons of tribal casinos, tribal council politics, and “traditional” Indians. One character names her dog “Tribal Council” so she can yell the words when the dog misbehaves. As for “traditional” Indians? Daunis reflects on “cultural leaders who make a big show about being capital ‘T’ Traditional. They’re quick to judge others, but hostile and turn mean when anyone points out their own shortcomings.”
Maybe my favorite part of this book – aside from its fast moving plot and memorable characters – is the way it shores up girls and young women. From the first chapter, Daunis is surrounded by strong female relatives who guide and protect her. But there’s value in strong, supportive male relatives, too. Daunis says: “Auntie told me once that a girl needs at least one grown man in her life who sees her worth as inherent. Values her just as she is, not dependent upon her appearance or accomplishments.”
Those words seem aimed at a young reader, and the book is in the “young adult” category. However, Boulley doesn’t flinch from controversy and complexity. Her characters discuss the impact of per capita payments on tribal members, describe how useless DNA ancestry tests are, and even explain deep theorem. There’s plenty here to think about, and that shouldn’t be limited to kids age 14 and up.
Boulley comes by clarity and teaching instinct naturally. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she’s a former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In an online Q&A, she wrote that she worked in Indian education on local, statewide and national levels.
Here’s another tidbit: Amazon reports that the book was a New York Times bestseller, and will be adapted by Netflix for TV with President Barrack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company.
You could wait to stream “Fire Keeper’s Daughter,” or find your way to Birchbark Books and buy the book. It’s a fast read about hockey and boyfriends and lipstick and opinionated aunties – until you get to the thoughtful, tragic parts that require reflection. The page count seems prohibitive, but time compresses while reading this book. If you like a multi-layered who-dun-it appropriate for older teens and adults of all ages, this is for you.
“Fire Keeper’s Daughter” 2021, is published by Henry Holt and Company
(488 pages; $18.99).