Ojibwe author Angeline Boulley on the “Indigenous Nancy Drew” story in her debut YA thriller
Angeline Boulley’s debut young adult novel opens with a heart-pounding scene: a girl stands frozen in the woods, staring down the barrel of a gun.
Over the course of the book, Michigan author Boulley revisits this dramatic scene, each time adding just a little more context and gradually unraveling the novel’s mystery. The result is an elegantly-paced, emotionally complex thriller called Firekeeper’s Daughter. It’s making a splash with teen and adult audiences alike — and it hasn’t even hit the shelves yet.
Boulley is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and she’s currently based in Southwest Michigan. But Firekeeper’s Daughter, which will be released March 16, is set in the places where Boulley grew up in the Upper Peninsula.
“I'm really proud to have a story that's set in my tribal community in Michigan,” Boulley said. “It's almost like the location becomes a character. It plays an integral part in the story.”
The book’s protagonist is 18-year-old Ojibwe student Daunis Fontaine, who’s navigating the complexity of her identity as a biracial, unenrolled tribal member while balancing school, sports, and the aftermath of a recent family tragedy. Not long after a charming, but mysterious, athlete catches Daunis’ eye, she witnesses a murder. As she follows a twisting path of intrigue and romance, Daunis pursues the truth of what’s happening in her community — and the truth of who she is.
Boulley says she grew up loving mysteries and thrillers, but the stories rarely featured characters who looked like her or shared her experiences.
“It wasn't until I was a senior in high school that I read a book where the protagonist was Native, and had a Native father and a non-Native mother. And I was just stunned,” she said. “Once I saw it, I realized, wait, I haven't seen this before, and why is that?”
Boulley says that elements of the novel started taking shape in her mind decades ago, when, as a student, she found out about an undercover drug bust at a nearby high school. She later served as the Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education, and she says her experiences working with teens in tribal communities also helped influence how she built the narrative in Firekeeper’s Daughter, which she spent more than a decade developing.
“Kids were still hearing the same things that I heard when I was growing up about, you know, oh, you don't look Indian, or not being Indian enough,” she said. “My daughter was a preteen at the time, about 12 years ago, when I decided to write this Indigenous Nancy Drew story. And that's how it all started.”
The novel deals with some serious subject matter, so it might not be suited for all young readers. And while the book is officially part of the YA genre, many adult readers will find this thriller gripping and powerful, too.
“Young adult stories are about coming of age and discovering who you are and finding your place in the world or in your community,” Boulley said. “When you're biracial, that adds another element that other people might not understand. And, you know, it gets into things like colorism and microaggressions and code switching and all of these things of, ‘How is my identity perceived by others, and at what point does it come from within me?’”
Boulley says she’s hoping teen readers of Firekeeper’s Daughter, especially those who are biracial, can see themselves reflected in the story and its characters.
“Identity is such a powerful theme in stories, because for all of the readers, all the teens out there who have felt that — living in both worlds, or not enough, or whatever struggles they go with, to feel seen in a story, I think that can do wonders for your self-identity,” she said. “I think that books and stories can do so much to help young people.”
Firekeeper’s Daughter will be published March 16. A Netflix series adaptation of the book is already in the works, too — it’s set for development with Higher Ground Productions, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company.
For more, listen to the full conversation above.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.