The idea for Angeline Boulley’s first YA novel, Firekeeper's Daughter (Holt), the story of an Anishinaabe teen who uses her traditional knowledge and science smarts to solve a crime on her reservation, was sparked by true events. “When I was 18,” she recalls, “one of my friends went to a different high school and told me about a new guy. She thought he was my type. Turns out he wasn’t. Toward the end of the school year she told me there’d been a huge drug bust and the new guy had been an undercover cop.”
Boulley wondered what her life would’ve been like if he had been her type—and that story stayed with her. Twenty-eight years later, after starting a family and working for numerous tribes, mainly as a grant writer, she began her journey of writing what would become a YA bestseller about 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine. She hoped her novel would be done by the time her daughter, who was then 10, reached high school. It took far longer to write than she’d imagined—10 years, in fact. However, everything she’d lived through was exactly what gave her the kind of experience necessary to write on such a serious issue: a girl whose uncle has overdosed on meth and who wants to do something about it, before it affects more people in her community.
Like her main character, Boulley is of the Sault Nation, though unlike Daunis, she didn’t have to struggle to become a recognized member. This theme of being a recognized citizen of a Native nation echoes the overarching theme of the complexity of identity in the Native world. Boulley says, “I know that I struggled when I was younger with my identity as an Ojibwe girl because I didn’t grow up on the reservation, because I was light-skinned, because I didn’t speak the language. And then to see my kids deal with different versions of the same issue, I felt it was so important for my daughter to be seen in a story.”
As Daunis works to understand what’s happening on her reservation in relationship to the meth that is taking so many people in her life who matter to her, she meets Jaime. Jaime turns out to be an undercover cop. He knows little about his own Native identity, which is much of why she falls for him. Daunis is connected to her culture, via dance, language, and family. But with a white mother, a dead father, and her lack of enrollment with the tribe, she often feels like an outsider too.
For many Native writers, exactly what to share about one’s culture is fraught, as there are various opinions as to which parts, especially with regard to spirituality, are appropriate for a creative work that will be in the hands of non-Natives. But Boulley recognizes that every writer has to make their own decisions, and that for her, “I wanted to make sure that I understood exactly where I drew that line and why, and who my cultural teachers are.”
One of the most powerful moments in the novel is when a murder occurs in Daunis’s circle—one that spotlights the high rate of violence against Indigenous women and speaks to the way in which women’s deaths can often be caused by the men in their lives. Because Daunis has grown up watching women live with violence from men and sublimate their own desires for men, it’s important to her to make positive, self-affirming decisions. Her personal journey to become a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) means knowing and caring for herself—which culminates in a powerful thematic punch toward the end.
As Boulley says, “Claiming her identity is her acknowledging all the different parts of her.”