You can be forgiven for thinking Firekeeper’s Daughter, the debut novel from Ojibwe author Angeline Boulley, is a fantasy novel. The cover is lush and symbol-laden, and the elemental title fits in perfectly with today’s young adult titles. But in fact, Firekeeper’s Daughter is a thriller rooted in the real world, a coming-of-age story, and a stunning, unflinching portrayal of modern Native American life.
Daunis Fontaine is eighteen, a former hockey player with a passion for medicine and a strong sense of honor. She’s also an outsider in the Minnesota town of Sault Ste. Marie, Minnesota. Her mother is from a well-to-do white family and her deceased father was a hockey star from the Sugar Island Ojibwe reservation. Daunis is not an enrolled member of the tribe, but she is deeply involved in reservation life. She dreams of studying medicine in college, so she can marry modern science with traditional Anishinaabe healing knowledge. When her grandmother has a stroke, she decides to stay home and help her mother — and when tragedy strikes again, she’s drawn into an FBI investigation of who, exactly, is supplying meth to the reservation and surrounding areas. Her search reveals long-buried secrets, endangering Daunis and the people she loves — but to not pursue the truth would endanger her entire community.
Firekeeper’s Daughter is a fantastic thriller — the pacing starts off leisurely, giving you time to understand Daunis and her place in the community before ratcheting up the tension to a breathless, nearly unbearable degree. It’s also a great character study; Daunis is a bright, empathetic, impulsive, complicated, and compelling narrator. When she makes poor choices, you understand what’s driving her; when she suffers, you ache for her. The book asks big questions about identity, justice, family and faith, and explores them with thoughtfulness and nuance. The descriptions, especially those of the natural world, are precise and evocative. The whole effect is both effortless and meticulously crafted.
What truly sets it apart from other crime novels, however, is the portrayal of modern Native American communities. Set in the early 2000s, when Native casinos were turning record profits and meth was beginning to flood reservations, it draws a vivid, authentic picture of Indigenous life, from politics and real estate to philosophies and ceremonies, highlighting the tension between the tribe and the surrounding towns. Native American history is woven throughout, giving a new and much-needed perspective, especially when it comes to Daunis’s interactions with the police. Boulley does not shy away from some of the ugly truths about the dangers facing Indigenous women, which makes for heartbreaking reading at times, but she also takes care to show the beauty and strength of the community. Every choice the author made, big and small, reiterates her love and deep knowledge of Ojibwe culture.
Firekeeper’s Daughter is many things: thoughtful, propulsive, gritty, beautiful, and surprising — a great choice for fans of Winter Counts, The Hate You Give, and Where The Crawdads Sing. Mostly, it is a marvel of a book, and one that will stay with me for a very long time.