Content warning: This review contains brief discussions on drugs and sexual assault.
A long time ago, I mentioned about the success of Where the Crawdads Sing and if the hype was worth it. With that book, I was mixed despite the praises coming from everywhere (but I still gave it 4 stars). Since 2018, plenty of popular books have come out and received not only glowing reviews, but lots of accolades. One of them was Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, which was published in 2021. I saw that book on nearly every best list whether it was best titles by Native American authors, best YA novels, or best books of 2021. By the time I finished reading it, I understood the hype, and reader, it was worth it for a variety of reasons.
Firekeeper’s Daughter revolves around a teenager going undercover to help with a criminal investigation. Daunis Fontaine is a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal. She feels like she could never quite fit in both in her hometown and on the near Ojibwe reservation. She dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother. Then comes Jamie. Jamie is a charming new recruit for her brother Levi’s hockey team. As she falls for him, Daunis realizes that some things don’t add up and that he’s hiding something. Everything comes to light when she witnesses a murder, which thrusts her into the heart of a criminal investigation. Reluctantly, she agrees to go undercover. At the same time, she conducts her own investigation, utilizing her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine to track down the criminals. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home. Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
Before I go into my initial thoughts about Firekeeper’s Daughter, I want to say that I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a very long time. Its accolades go without saying, and I knew a lot of people who read and loved it. So why read it now? Well reader, back in March, I attended Spring Institute – a conference for youth librarians in the state of Michigan, and Angeline Boulley was a keynote speaker there. She was funny and wonderful to talk to. I even got a photo with her! In other words, she was the catalyst for me to FINALLY read Firekeeper’s Daughter!
I love how the book takes its time to establish its setting and most importantly its characters. Boulley’s descriptions of the various locations in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and on Sugar Island were clear and precise that I could imagine them right away. They also make me want to go to those places some day.
In addition, I really got the sense of who Daunis is and her relationships within the first 50 pages. She’s a science nerd who’s going through some recent trauma with her uncle’s sudden death. It doesn’t help that she feels that she doesn’t truly belong with either her white or native relatives. Establishing her character makes readers understand why she does the things she does even if some of her actions can come off as irrational. It also makes us root for her, especially when bad things happen to her like when one of hockey player’s dads rapes her in a hotel room.
Moreover, other characters feel very real too. Granted, there are lot of them, yet I had no trouble keeping track of them. I really like Lily – Daunis’s best friend. She is sex-crazy teenager who puts Daunis in her place, especially when the latter gets too science-y. She also has an on-again, off-again relationship with a guy named Travis who went to school with them. I won’t reveal the conclusion to that saga for those who haven’t read the novel yet. Then, there’s Jamie. At first, he is a cool, funny, and charming guy that I can totally see why Daunis develops feelings for. He has his secrets, and he hides them as much as she does. Let’s say that they go on a rollercoaster when it comes to relationship stuff.
While some people might complain about the slow beginning, once the murder happens, it moves at a brisk pace. Sure, there are times where the investigation stops, so Daunis can enroll in the tribe. However, I found that to be just as important as the research for her character.
For the plot itself, I found it to be fine. I’m not much of a science person, so I didn’t fully understand chemistry when it came to making crystal meth. Luckily, the internet was there to help me out. As mentioned earlier, it slowly bloomed like a flower. I got more and more invested as more obstacles arose. While not everyone involved in the crime was punished, it didn’t bother me, for the book critiques the notion of privilege. Many of the characters are not surprised by the outcome.
And of course, I couldn’t complete this review without mentioning the references to Ojibwe culture. This is what makes the book stand out. Even though Daunis feels that she doesn’t truly belong in either with her white family nor her indigenous one, she still connects to the Anishnaabe community. For example, every morning, she gives a pinch of semaa at the eastern base of a tree by her house and prays to her ancestors to give her the strength for the day. Also, the novel sprinkles in some Anishinaabemowin – the language of the Anishnaabe people. All of these felt authentic since Boulley is part of the Objibwe tribe, and they are used in ways that don’t interrupt the book. Some of these even enhance certain aspects. For example, Daunis discusses the concept of the Gifts of the Seven Grandfathers – a philosophy, in which one can follow in order to live a good life. One of them is telling the truth. However, throughout the book, she has a hard time doing that, for she doesn’t want to make things worse for the people around her while she investigates the sudden drug-related deaths and has a “relationship” with Jamie.
Overall, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley is a character study that’s worth the hype. It’s not a perfect book, but what works really works. The characters and references to the Anishnaabe culture truly make the novel stand out. I would recommend it to those who want to read books by Native American authors as well as who like stories about being caught in two different worlds, murder mysteries, and involve lots of science. It’s being adapted into a limited series on Netflix by the Obama’s Higher Ground Productions Company, and I can’t wait to see it! Who knows? Maybe I’ll do a review of the series.
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