YA Debut Is an Ojibwe Murder Mystery Ten Years in the Making

Posted by Sharon on March 1, 2021
Angeline Boulley set out over a decade ago to write the story she wanted to read as a young Ojibwe teenager. The result is Firekeeper's Daughter, a novel that’s part crime fiction, part coming-of-age tale, and equally thrilling, visceral, and heartrending.
 
Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine straddles two worlds: her Native one and her white one. Her life changes after she witnesses a murder and goes undercover to seek justice and help keep her loved ones safe. The investigation takes her places she never expects and reveals parts of her community some would prefer to stay hidden.
 
What Boulley brought to the page reflects her own life in part. Similar to Daunis, she grew up with a Native father and a non-Native mother, and her family comes from Sugar Island, a small island between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Canada, where some of the book takes place.

For that reason, she’s able to paint an authentic, vivid picture of the Anishinaabe world while shining a light on the very real issues Native communities and Indigenous women specifically face.
 
Boulley talked to Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about her research process, editing to protect her culture, and how she’s grown as a writer over the years. Their conversation has been edited.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Goodreads: I want to start by talking about the cover. An Indigenous artist created it, and I’m wondering if you can talk through the significance of the illustrations from an Indigenous standpoint and how the symbols pertain to the book.

Angeline Boulley: I'm thrilled to talk about it. It's just the most gorgeous cover! Rich Deas is the art director for Macmillan Children's publishing group, and my hat's off to him because he wanted to make sure that the cover art was from an Indigenous artist and specifically an Ojibwe artist. He found Moses Lunham, who's just this incredibly talented artist. They worked on concepts, and I was able to have some input, it was a very collaborative process.

I've heard some talk that it was very unusual—to have an Indigenous artist create the cover for an Indigenous author—and I think it should be the norm. I think that respecting Indigenous art and working with tribal or nation-specific artists is important.
 
Moses' art really captures the book. There's a certain feel to Ojibwe art, specifically the florals and just that aesthetic. There's a butterfly on the cover, and if you notice there are two different skin tones on it. Of course, butterflies are very symbolic of metamorphosis, and so the butterfly feature alone speaks to Daunis' transformation and also about her identity, how she compartmentalized her identity at the beginning of the story. And she is bear clan, so the animals that are depicted are a bear and then a raven. The raven really plays into part of the story, too. The sun in the background is speaking to our cultural stories about firekeepers' daughters lifting the sun and starting each day with a song. That really spoke to our sense of obligation in our communities, and so I think that really informs Daunis' character.

GR: You’ve talked about not seeing yourself in the books you read growing up, which motivated you to write Firekeeper’s Daughter. Obviously, there are many routes, plots, genres you could’ve explored. What made you want to tell this particular story about Daunis and her community?

AB: Really, it was wanting to write a story for the teen I was and who would've wanted to read a story like this, which speaks to the adage of "write what you know, write the story you wish to read growing up." When I wrote it, I knew that it would be on the upper end of young adult and into adult crossover, and I just tried to write the story that needed to be told. In revision, we figured out the market and deciding that it was YA, but I'm glad that I just wrote it the way that I wanted to first and then figured out the other stuff later.
 
I wanted to write this story about this young woman really coming into her own, finding her place in the world and her identity, which has always been something that she felt like she wasn't enough of or felt like it was something that she had to overcome. But realizing that it actually is her superpower, it's her greatest strength, actually, that she is all of these parts of all these communities.

GR: You started writing the book a decade ago. How do you think you’ve grown as a writer since then?

AB: I think I've learned how to write through those ten years. I don't have an MFA, and I know a lot of times writers talk about how they had these three or four practice novels that never went anywhere and that's really where they honed their craft, and I didn't have those. What I had were practice drafts because it was just this one story, but it was all of these iterations as my skills improved to be able to write the story that was in my mind and figuring out how to get my writing ability up to that level of what I was trying to do.
 
I would say I've realized that I'm not a linear writer. I think some of the struggles that I had over those ten years was massive writer’s block, and it was because I couldn't see the story right in front of me, the next chapter. But I knew the ending. So I think it was an epiphany to realize that I wasn't a linear writer and I could hop over and pick up the story where I knew it was going to be and then work my way backward.

GR: The book takes place in the early ’00s, which seems both far away and close at the same time. What made you want to set the book during this particular decade? Was there any significance there?

AB: Yes! There were three significant reasons that went into setting the story when I did.

First, the early '00s is really when meth exploded across the country. Rural America and tribes fall into that rural America.

The other is that, for tribes that do operate casinos, the early '00s were really a prime time. In Michigan, the ones that had a better location could really be lucrative during that time.

And then third was the technology that was available. Now, everyone's got a cellphone with GPS that can track wherever you are, and the book needed to be set in a time where there was that GPS technology but it was still imperfect, it was still imprecise. And the whole thing about the cellphone coverage on Sugar Island—that part is still true [Laughs.].

GR: There are a lot of plot twists in the book and a lot of characters. How did you approach structuring and connecting all of the dots while writing? Since the book was ten years in the making, did you have a spreadsheet of some kind?

AB: I love Excel, so I outline there. I have a column for my plot pieces and then a summary column of what happened. Then I would do a column of the time of day or date, just to keep things straight in my head, and columns for the themes in the book, cultural teachings, and then all of the characters. Each row is a chapter, and so I was able to see where everybody is, even some characters that aren't in the chapter, knowing what they're doing at that time off the page. So yeah, I just live by my Excel spreadsheet.

GR: The research process must’ve been very involved—from learning about undercover operations to chemistry to drugs and, of course, drawing from your own culture. What was that research process like, and what did you enjoy learning about the most?

AB: I'm really lucky that I have a good network of people who helped me with the book. First is one of my friends who's Native and a retired FBI agent. I was able to pick his brain. He has so many stories, and I told him that he needs to write a book because he was at Waco and Oklahoma City and some really high-profile FBI cases. So it was really good to talk with him, and then he would introduce me to other people, and it just fanned out into this really great network of information.

The most surprising part was learning how to make meth and how to identify clandestine meth labs! I went to a workshop at the state police academy, and I was the only non-law enforcement person that was able to take that class because I knew a professor who had been a law enforcement officer and had connections at the police academy. That was incredible and really good to learn.
 
Then I would say the research part that I really enjoyed the most was talking with family and friends from my tribal community about, "Hey, what do you know about our medicines or what do you know about this?" I asked my cousin Sammy, like, "Do you know any old-timey medicines?" And that's when she told me the story about having an earache and her grandma had her pee in a cup and poured it into her ear because the ferry was shut down for the night. Her urine cured her earache. When she told me that, I was like, "Wow." I looked it up and, yeah, urine is sterile and it can be used as a substitute for hydrogen peroxide.
 
So being able to include all of this rich detail, all of this information. Really talking with family and friends about medicines and plants and realizing that our ancestors were so intelligent and they knew about all of these medicines. It’s only when they can be legitimately verified to science do they get credibility today, but I just think about all of the things that they knew that we still don't.

GR: You’ve also talked about being selective about what to share about your culture and its traditions and rituals and what not to share. I believe the quote I’ve heard is that you write to preserve your culture and you edit to protect it. What was the hardest part about finding a good balance, and what were some concerns you had?

AB: Knowing that I was confident in where I drew the line. I anticipate there will be readers or other people from Native communities who might’ve drawn the line differently and might take issue, but I feel confident in my choices. A concern is that you reveal too much, but, for instance, I was very deliberate in not including ceremonies.

GR: Your book brought to mind something Toni Morrison has talked about in the past, about writing for her audience and refusing to change the language or perspective of her work to make it more palatable for a white audience. I think that’s what you’re doing in the book in the sense of weaving in traditional and cultural elements, including Native language and not over-explaining or watering them down. Was that your intention, and if so, why was that important to you?

AB: I think so, yeah. For example, not including a glossary and just feeling like, "No, the reader can glean it from the context." I think that will have non-Native readers realize how much of what they read is centered in the white gaze. It was deliberate in that I wrote it so that it wasn't textbook-y or an information dump. Figuring out how to convey information so that the reader, who might not know anything about tribal communities or Ojibwe culture, could be brought along but yet not spoon-feeding it and having them have to do some of the work.

GR: The book stretches across different genres, and I know that you’ve said you wanted to write the Indigenous Nancy Drew. Other than Nancy Drew, were you inspired by other books when writing yours?

AB: I love Robert Cormier, the author of I Am the Cheese. His books always have these twists, and it doesn't tie up neatly in a bow at the end. It’s kind of like exposing younger readers to harsh realities or some darker aspects of life. Lois Duncan is another author who does that; she does a supernatural thing with a lot of her books. I like the way that those authors were able to write about kind of the underbelly of the worlds they wrote about.
 
I very much wanted my story to speak to Native teens and what their world might look like. The Native students I worked with in my career were going through similar things that I went through and things that I didn't realize. And so I just felt it was really important to ground the story in the realities that students face and that writing a compelling genre-bending story could do that.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
GR: Are there any books you’re reading right now that you’re loving? 

AB: I just started reading Darcie Little Badger’s young adult book Elatsoe. I was on a panel with her, so I'm really excited to dive into her book.
 
And then there are some other authors right on that cusp. They're considered adult, but I would feel comfortable recommending them for young adult readers, and that's Erika T. Wurth and her book Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. It just has such a unique voice, and I think it should be taught in every MFA program.
 
Then Marcie Rendon, her Cash Blackbear Mystery series. In the Native author community, she's like a matriarch. I'm in awe of her and the way she writes; it's very much the way that our elders and our Anishinaabe storytellers tell a story. You're seeing it through Anishinaabe eyes, and they're describing what they're seeing and what it sounds like, so it's very descriptive, and that's what Marcie's writing is like. It's very much in the written form of that classic Ojibwe storyteller.

GR: I’m always curious as to what people listen to when they write. Do you have a go-to soundtrack or one that was specific to The Firekeeper’s Daughter?

AB: Yes! Well, it's been well over ten years [Laughs.], but I would listen to different songs. It's more like songs for character’s…so for Daunis, the singer Faouzia and specifically “This Mountain” is one of the songs that I would listen to that I think really captured Daunis. And then this Lewis Capaldi song “Someone You Loved.” I listen to that and I just see Jamie. And then, of course, Lily is everything Amy Winehouse.

GR: In the book, Daunis likes to think about things in seven generations. What do you hope readers take away from the book, whether in March [when the book comes out] or seven generations from now?

AB: I hope that my book stands the test of time. That people recognize we have dynamic stories and that our stories shouldn't be set in the past or told from that white gaze or for that white gaze. I really hope that people look back on Indigenous authors and what we're going through right now and see it as a turning point where traditional publishing recognizes the value of Native voices, stories about Native people written by Native authors, tribal specific, and recognize the diversity within our communities.

Michaela Golde recently won the Caldecott Medal for best children's picture story [with We Are Water Protectors], and she was the first Indigenous artist to win that, which is incredible. This feels like a really special time, that there's something going on here and that it's not a trend; it's an overdue recognition of Indigenous creative talent.
 
Angeline Boulley's Firekeeper's Daughter will be available in the U.S. on March 16. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by May (new)

May Bhankohleing Yas I've been looking for thrillers/murder mystery by Indigenous authors. Please do more thriller/murder mystery recs by BIPOC and POC authors!


message 2: by Nadine (new)

Nadine Doolittle Very excited to read this and the cover is gorgeous.


message 3: by Cindy (new)

Cindy So excited for this. Preordered as soon as I heard about it. And it takes place in the community that I have a cabin in. Love it!


message 4: by Aeisha (new)

Aeisha C What a great interview! I just got this book in the mail (shout out to BookishFirst/NetGalley!) and the cover is even more beautiful in person! I can't wait to finish.


message 5: by Jess (new)

Jess Witkins Wonderful interview! Loved all the insight and adding it to my tbr list!


message 6: by bookcaked (new)

bookcaked So excited for this, already preordered. Please recommend more mystery/thriller novels by BIPOC authors!


Amy "the book-bat" This book sounds amazing! Definitely a "want to read".


message 8: by Veronica (new)

Veronica Minucci Want to read! 🐾


message 9: by Shannon (new)

Shannon This novel is amazing! I received an ARC from Netgalley last year and it is by far my favorite pick for YA this year! I will be suggesting it to all my HS students that visit the library! Super excited for it to arrive on my shelves!


message 10: by TMR (new)

TMR Looking forward to all of these books.


back to top