Safiyya: For March’s buddy read, Hailey and I read Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley, a YA mystery/thriller about an Anishnabe girl who gets pulled into a murder/drug investigation in her community.
After eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine witnesses her best friend’s death, she becomes determined to root out the drug ring that has taken hold over her town. After joining forces with an undercover FBI agent, she faces a series of increasingly dangerous challenges as she hunts down source of the drugs and the people masterminding the operation. To solve this case, Daunis will have to investigate her family and closest friends, test her own abilities, and come to terms with her identity as a biracial woman in a colonial world.
Readers, we loved it. Daunis is such an incredibly compelling main character, and I was rooting for her throughout the book. She is strong and brave, but that doesn’t prevent her from being vulnerable and flawed. I loved the side characters, from Daunis’s badass aunt to Lily’s badass grandmother. I loved that the adult characters were not infantalized, nor pushed to the margins, as happens in many novels with the YA Publisher’s Generic Gloss (TM). I loved the deeper insights into Anishnabe history and traditions. I loved most of the twists and turns of the mystery (more on that later).
Angeline Boulley spent several years working on this novel, and she chose to keep the setting in 2004. Blackberry phones are all the rage, the Internet is still a nascent thing, and meth is the biggest danger facing high school kids. None of this feels dated; the story is simply set at a specific time and place, and it is all the better for that decision. Some of the plot elements wouldn’t work as well in the age of the Internet and social media, and it was refreshing to revisit a different period that still felt contemporary and relatable. Boulley also drew upon her own experiences as an Ojibwe woman, and as such, the story is a fascinating blend of the mystery and coming-of-age genres, with deep dives into Anishnabe traditional history.
I am increasingly not a fan of first-person POV in the present tense, which seems to be the default for all YA novels these days. (I generally find this form of storytelling to have a kind of breathless, messy pacing. and I suspect the fell hand of publishers who are still trying to reproduce the Hunger Games series.) All that being said, the first-person, present tense actually worked for me in this book, and all credit should be given to Angeline Boulley for her deft writing style and pacing. I can hardly believe this was Boulley’s first novel; she writes with such confidence and smoothness.
If I had one complaint or criticism about the book, it would be that the resolution of the mystery fell a bit flat for me. (Vague spoilers for the ending here; skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) We have this big, corrupt gang of criminals who are in various positions of power within the society, and they are apparently taking orders from a teenager? It seems unlikely, given the specific characters involved, and the book needed a fuller explanation as to how this situation came about. Some of the villainous characters also seemed to regress in their complexity, becoming two-dimensional and uncomplicatedly evil for evil’s sake. On the other hand, the emotional resolution of Daunis’s character arc was handled beautifully, and the final chapters of the book are pitch-perfect. If I had to choose between a satisfying ending for the mystery or the coming-of-age story, I would much prefer the latter.
I look forward to reading whatever Angeline Boulley’s next project happens to be, and I would definitely encourage people to check out Firekeeper’s Daughter. Since Netflix has apparently optioned the rights for an adaptation, hopefully we will see an increased awareness and interest in the book.
Content Warning: Please be aware, this book portrays drug addiction, sexual assault, racism, suicide, and the effects of the residential school system.