“The story has been in me since I was 18 years old. It’s been a long game for me,” Angeline Boulley told PW of her debut YA novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter. Boulley describes the tale, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as an “Indigenous Nancy Drew.”
When 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine, a science geek and hockey star, investigates the drug overdoses of young people in her community, as well as the mysterious death of her uncle, the trail of suspicion leads her deep into the Sault Ste. Marie tribal community near her hometown that she has always longed to officially join. (She lacks enrollment due to the complicated relationship between her late Ojibwe father and French-Canadian mother.) What Daunis discovers through her sleuthing makes her question everything she thought she knew about the world and the people closest to her.
The novel, which is scheduled for release by Henry Holt on March 16 with a 250,000-copy first printing, has received glowing pre-pub reviews and has already been optioned for a film adaptation. In a starred review, PW praised its “sharp turns and charming characters,” declaring: “Hitting hard when it comes to issues such as citizenship, language revitalization, and the corrosive presence of drugs on Native communities, this novel will long stand in the hearts of both Native and non-Native audiences.” Its publisher also anticipates crossover appeal.
Boulley, 55, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians explains that the story first took hold decades ago, when she was a high school senior in her Michigan hometown. A friend who attended another high school told her about “a new guy at her school who was just my type.” When Boulley later asked her friend about the young man, the friend dismissed him, explaining that he “hangs out with all the stoners.” But after a big drug bust at that school, it turned out that the young man was an undercover narcotics officer. “I just remember thinking when I was 18, what if I’d gone to that school and been involved with him? What if I’d liked him, and what if he’d liked me? Then I thought, what if it wasn’t that he liked me, but he needed my help? That planted the idea for the story.”
Over the years, as she started a family and pursued her career, which included serving as director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education, the story stayed with her. “What if the high schooler were Native? Why would an officer need the help of some Ojibwe girl?” she said she asked herself, adding, “It kept building.”
Finally, more than 10 years ago, Boulley decided to write down the tale. After finishing the first draft, she felt that her “writing wasn’t worthy of the story” and began doing extensive rewrites. She also started reading books on craft, and paid attention in her pleasure reading to first sentences, plot, and pacing.
“I used to feel bad that I didn’t have an MFA or I didn’t pursue writing,” she said. “But then I thought, I’ve been storytelling through grants for the tribes I worked for. You have to convey the community’s needs and what they are going to do with the funds. You have to make it a compelling story because you are competing against other worthy projects. Grant writing is really where I honed my ability to tell an engaging story.”
She did not set out to write a novel for YA readers, she said. “I just wrote the story I wanted to tell. I think what makes it YA is that at its core is a question about identity—a young person trying to find their place in the world and what that means for them.” Boulley acknowledged that her editors suggested that she be “mindful of younger YA readers,” especially with such scenes as a teen murder-suicide and the sexual assault of a teen by an older male.
Literary and Other Influences
While Boulley is being compared to Tommy Orange and Angie Thomas by her publisher and in pre-pub reviews, her literary influences range widely. Growing up, she enjoyed reading tales woven by Robert Cormier, Shirley Jackson, and Lois Duncan, “mystery thrillers that would have those twists to them.” As an adult, influences include Louise Erdrich and Anita Shreve, especially the latter’s 2001 novel, The Last Time They Met, which opens in the present and moves backward in time though narrated in the present tense. “You think you know where the story is going but then there’s a twist at the very end,” Boulley said. “I realized when I read that book that you can play with craft. Sometimes, how you tell the story takes it to another level.”
Boulley set her novel in the Upper Peninsula because she wanted “to tell a story about my community. It was natural for me to want to set it there.” While she did not grow up in the U.P., her tribe is based there and she spent summers with her father’s family in Sault Ste. Marie throughout her childhood; she also lived there for 15 years as an adult. “I love Sault Ste. Marie and Sugar Island. There are so many really wonderful areas,” she said. “And then you get these really rural and isolated stretches.”
She also emphasized that she wanted to tell a story about a prosperous tribal community in which “the economics aren’t the most pressing issue, or maybe it solves some problems but creates others.”
Noting that Orange’s novel, There There, explored an urban Indigenous community, thus spotlighting the fact that more Native Americans live in cities than on reservations, Boulley said that she hopes that Firekeeper’s Daughter “puts a spotlight on tribes that operate casinos and aren’t necessarily destitute, because that’s in the popular narrative.” She added, “No one’s story can be the Great Native American Novel because no one story can capture everything. Our stories are much more nuanced and diverse.”
The title, Firekeeper’s Daughter, contains several layers of meaning, Boulley pointed out. On the surface, it refers to Daunis Fontaine’s identity as the daughter of Levi Firekeeper. But there is also an Ojibwe myth about the firekeeper’s daughter, who lives on the eastern horizon and begins each day by lifting the sun and singing a song.
“I always felt a connection to that story because my dad is a firekeeper,” Boulley noted, explaining that in Anishinaabe cultures, a firekeeper lights ceremonial fires, makes sure that protocols are followed, and tells stories while tending the fire.
The title, Boulley said, ultimately refers to “your duty and your role in the community—what is it that gets imposed upon you and what is it that you choose?”
As for the villains in Firekeeper’s Daughter, Boulley’s inspiration was drawn from actual news reports of incidents that occurred on reservations. She says that she wants readers to understand that people may act in evil ways for reasons that seem perfectly plausible to them. “Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story,” Boulley said, “It’s not so black and white. I wanted to show their perspective; even though we don’t agree, you can see their motivation.” She also wanted to impart the message that when problems arise within communities, “solutions should come from within the community rather than be imposed upon it by outsiders.”
After writing and revising for almost a decade, Boulley applied to We Need Diverse Books’ mentorship program in 2019 and was paired with YA author Francisco X. Stork. After working with him on her last revision, she decided she was ready to move forward in the process. “I felt like I had taken the story as far as I could,” she said, “I had exercised that writer muscle to exhaustion. I was ready to work with an agent.”
Boulley participated in #DVPit in an attempt to find an agent. After tweeting her pitch, Boulley recalls that “more than 80 agents and editors liked that tweet.” She interviewed a dozen agents and received eight offers of representation before settling on Faye Bender, a partner at the Book Group—who also represents Stork.
“Faye is like a rock star; she represents that great blend of commercial and literary,” Boulley said. “With her guidance, I knew I would have my best shot.”
12 Houses Vie for Novel
The rest is history: after an auction involving 12 houses, Tiffany Liao of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers acquired Firekeeper’s Daughter in a two-book deal for a rumored seven figures.
“I had faith the book would get published,” Boulley said. “I had no clue that so many editors would feel as strongly as they did about it, and that it would go to auction. That was a wonderful surprise.”
Liao recalls thinking when she first read it, “This is a story Angeline absolutely needs to tell and we have to publish. There was this urgency on the page that drew me in.” She added, “It’s a thriller, yes, but it’s layered in such a way as to raise these big questions about identity, longing, and justice.”
Acquiring Boulley’s novel felt a little like kismet, the editor said. Recalling that a few years ago she was part of a “first pages” panel at the Kweli Color of Children's Literature Conference, Liao said that panelists read the first 250 words of participants’ novels—all submitted anonymously. “I will never forget reading the opening lines of one manuscript: ‘I began as a secret and then a scandal.’ I remember getting chills with this one line, thinking the voice is electrifying and confident; this is a powerful storyteller. I got a submission from Faye a year later. I opened it up and it was Angeline’s words.”
Liao praised Boulley for creating complex characters and writing with nuance about conflicts and controversies within the Native American community, noting, “Angeline was able to weave those issues into a very human portrayal of the world Daunis is a part of.” She added, “I’ve never met a character like Daunis before. She’s a Native teen who’s figuring out what it means to honor her traditions in the contemporary world. She offers a prayer for courage but she also puts on her F.U. stilettos.”
Boulley is working on her next novel, also set in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., which features some characters introduced in Firekeeper’s Daughter. Describing it as an “Indigenous Lara Croft,” Boulley emphasized that it is not a sequel to her first book.
Reflecting upon how, after so many years, Firekeeper’s Daughter finally will find its readers, Boulley feels excitement and pride in joining the community of contemporary Native authors that has steadily grown in recent years and is flourishing—recently demonstrated, for example, by the 2021 Caldecott Medal win by Michaela Goade, the Indigenous artist who illustrated Carole Lindstrom’s We Are Water Protectors; Goade is the first Native American to receive this award. “We’re on the cusp of something.” Boulley said, “I am very proud of the writers who are finally getting some attention.”
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, Henry Holt, $18.99, Mar. ISBN 978-1-250-76656-4