The Firekeeper’s Daughter: A Review

✶⋆ Welcome to a new post in Books From Fangorn! I’m happy to announce that this time, it is going to be a book review. Have you read The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley?

I wrote a short review on GoodReads but, I feel the necessity of writing a longer review… NO spoilers here. But if you want to chat more on the novel, see you on bookstagram! I would love to know your thoughts! 

Now, returning to this entry, I’m diving the review into simple sections to make it easier to read. 

I. How this book was advertised:

It was advertised as a YA read by Own Voices author. A book with teens as characters, whose protagonist, Daunis, is an 18 years old young woman whose father, an Ojibwe famous hockey player and her mother is the whitest and richest girl in town. Daunis is asked to help resolve a drug case that affects her community, which might change the world she seems to know. 

Read more about the premise and a sneak peek of the book here

II. What actually got me to read it:

It wasn’t the fact that it was advised as YA. Or, I surely would have had some doubts about whether to open it or not. I’m actually faded up with YA involving love triangles and sexual tension scenes which make almost all the pages of the book and no story or plot (Yes Cassandra Clare, I’m looking at you! I’m from the first generation of the Shadowhunters fans, but then with your Queen of Air and Darkness, I finally quit. Where the story and plot did go?!). If you want to read those topical YA this is not. And I’m so grateful for that. What got me to read it, wasn’t that the book won as best reviewed on GoodReads last year either… Because I’ve not been following the trend lately… 

What got me reading, was its own author comments on an interview, which are the same words in the Author’s Notes:

“I set out to write Firekeeper’s Daughter because there are simply too few stories told by and about Native Americans, especially from a contemporary point of view. We exist and have dynamic experiences beyond history books or stories set long ago”. 

I truly would love to thank Angeline Boulley for that! I’m not Native American, English is not even my first language. But, being from Chile, I know how Indigenous people live nowadays and I am aware that they are very heterogeneous. I absolutely love so much being able to read a story as such and make it available for everyone who is interested in reading it. I agree with Boulley that there are few stories written by Indigenous people. Less for young audiences. Being from the Twilight generation, I had to read it, I wasn´t a great fan, and I was mad when I read that Native Americans were referred to as a homogeneous group, and Jacob and his “tribe” was created by blending different traditions, especially in the movies, it felt so wrong! I’m glad that this book is a start for rising their voices, and that Indigenous teens can also be represented in literature.

As a general Introduction to Angeline Bouley, I think it is relevant to share some extracts of her own description that is available on her website:

“…I have been shaped by a network of strong Anishinaabe Kwewag (Native American women), who may be called auntie, friend, cousin, or nokomis.  My father is a traditional firekeeper, who strikes ceremonial fires at spiritual activities in the tribal community and ensures protocols are followed, while providing cultural teachings through stories told around the fire. He is one of my greatest teachers. I’m proud of my career in Indian education at the tribal, state, and national levels. Most recently, I was the Director of the Office of Indian Education (OIE) at the U.S. Department of Education. Previously, I was my tribe’s Education Director/Assistant Executive Director and served on the Board of Regents at Bay Mills Community College. I am beyond fortunate to be a full-time author now. Although I currently live in Southwest Michigan, my home will always be Bahweting (the place of the rapids) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan”.

You can read the full information about her here. As you can see, Angeline Boulley is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is a storyteller who writes about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

As someone who is interested and involved professionally (because of my love for diversity and respect) in Indigenous Studies (I know and I will always be aware that as I’m not indigenous I’ll never truly understand all their feelings and thinking, and I should not have access to all their knowledge and that’s absolutely all right because I’m a Latinoamerican woman and not indigenous) I’m extremely grateful for Boulley for allowing both audiences to be able to read her novel.  As the novel truly evokes and makes us sympathize with and experience Daunis’ worries, pains, joys, and feelings. In a way, it reminded me of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy because we get to be inside the characters’ worlds and lives as if we were actually living them with them and through them.

So let me share with you what I loved about The Fire Daughter’s Keeper

III. Things I loved from the book

• The Narrative Style :

I’ve read reviews complaining about how long and repetitive it seemed. I’m grateful that editors did not cut the unique narrative style that certainly made this novel a One Voice reading! Daunis’s narration felt completely organic and natural. I loved all those references to routines, repetitions, traditions, and of course the usage of Anishinaabe! As I had only been familiar with Ojibwe People superficially, I loved being able to learn through Daunis’ eyes, the way she interacts with the world, the ways she sees it, and how she engages with her community. 

Now, I studied literature at the university during my undergraduate, and we had a subject called World Literatures, where we learnt how different narrative styles can clearly show different voices and ways of seeing the world. I’m so glad I read this book years later after those studies because it clearly has its unique style different from other YA. You have to read it to feel what I mean, but here you can read an example:

“I start my day before sunrise, throwing on running clothes and laying a pitch of semaa at the eastern base of a tree where sunlight will touch the tobacco first. Prayers begin with offering semaa and sharing my Spirit name, clan and where I am from. I always add an extra name to make sure the Creator knows who I am. A name that connects me to my father – because I began a secret, and then a scandal”. 

That’s the first paragraph from the first chapter. This routine will be repeated in some parts of the story, but this is relevant because it gives us readers a view of how Daunis experiences her life. Time is circular and not linear, which I think is brilliantly done in the narrative.

The Plot :

I loved that it was a thriller, with Ojibwe teachings, and realities that are harsh but it is necessary to raise awareness and celebrate respect for diversity. There were some YA aspects, but I’m glad that they are not the main focus of the story.

About the plot, the plot focuses on Daunis Fountaine, an eighteen years old girl who loves hockey and science, who is not an enrolled member of the Ojibwe community, but whose father, auntie and grandmother from her father’s side are members, and she has a close relationship with the community. On the other hand, as a Fountaine, she is the granddaughter of the family who dislikes Indigenous People and who believed it was a shame that their daughter had a relationship with one, Daunis’s father. Daunis seems to never fit in those two words, she wants to go to the university and study medicine, but things change when tragedy strikes her family. She decides to stay home and help her mother, cheer her brother Levi and the hockey team, and attend some classes with her best friend Lily. But, things get worse, when she witnesses a murder and is eventually asked to help the FBI as an undercover to help her community as meth is destroying everything she loves.

Something I was very curious to learn more about the little people, they are mentioned in numerous stories, and there are similar beings in different cultures all over the world. And here in The Firedaughter’s Keep have a relevant role in the plot. In this book, if we consider them as a literary device for constructing the thriller they work fantastically, as I couldn’t forget Travis’s words:

She is for real? Cause the Little People won’t leave me alone. They’re out here. All around me… They’re so mad at me. The Little People”.

Now, as we learned in the book, they are also relevant to the Ojibwe community as they are part of their real beliefs. But what I appreciated, on the other hand, is that much wasn’t revealed because, as some non-Objibwe like me don’t know everything about the culture and aren’t supposed to know, and it’s also fine because it is their culture, I liked how the matter surrounding the little people was solved in the book. Daunis hints at what would happen if the world outside her Ojibwe community knows about them and her local medicine, but we aren’t given exact clues about them and it is fine because we aren’t supposed to know much, save what Daunis tell us.

• The Usage of Anishinaabe:

The novel is written in English but contains some words and phrases in Anishinaabe, being the language spoken by the Ojibwe people. I wasn’t familiar with the language, some words could be taken by context and others weren’t taken by context and made me wonder what they meant. I have read numerous books where there are some words in other languages in the middle of the narrative, like when the books are written in English but they put French words, and I think it feels odd. But in The Fire Keeper’s Daughter, the mixture of English and Anishinaabe felt completely natural, and as linguistics say, different languages allow us to experience the world differently, that idea was clearly seen here.

Now as I’m curious about languages (unfortunatelly I’m not good at learning them, I’m afraid, but I feel the necessity to discover more about them because I love understanding how people experience the world, and I’m proud to say that I’ve taken two courses on indigenous languages: Maori and Mapuzungun) I had to google and see if I could at least try to understand some of the words that were mentioned in the story. I was also curious about how the words were pronounced, I remember my kimelfe (that’s the teacher who taught me Mapuzungun) telling us that some of the most terrible things done to Indigenous People and their language are trying to adapt it to European languages and not accepting that they are unique.

 If you have the same worries as me, ojibwe.net website has the solution! I was so happy and grateful because they did an entry exclusively on The Firekeeper’s Daughter and Anishinaabe. They don’t only provide a dictionary with some words used by Daunis, but they also share the recordings of her prayers read aloud so you can hear them while reading the novel, which is what I did. You can visit that entry here. For me, being from the other side of the world and a non-speaker, It was so beautiful and an honour to be able to hear the language spoken. I totally recommend having that page opened while reading the novel if you like me don’t know Anishinaabe.

I’m glad the book didn’t include a dictionary at the end, because, it would have been odd. You know, when some novels are in English but include French terms, these are never translated, and the authors or editors assume that you know them. But I’m grateful that there is a website available to consult and learn more. You can visit it here

Learning from Ojibwe People in Modern Days :

As a non-Ojibwe, and being aware that every community is different, I thank Boulley for teaching us about some of the everyday activities, beliefs, processes like mourning and relationships with the elders and nature. She takes the time to explain some ceremonies, gatherings, and stories. I think, using Daunis to explain to Jaime some things in the story felt very welcoming and good for someone who was only a little familiarised with Ojibwe culture:

“In Ojibwe culture, the owl is a companion for crossing over when you die”, I explain. “Not exactly the ambassador you want telling Nish parents to immunize their babies”.

The quote is an example when Daunis explains to Jaime why there is a problem with the t-shirts her community has received for the immunization fair, that feature an owl saying: “be wise. Immunize!”. But of course, the owl means something different in occidental society. And if you, like me, didn’t know what owls meant for Ojibwe, we learnt when Jaime asks what’s the problem. There are numerous examples of this in the novel.

Now in terms of modernity, Autie Teddie had certainly some of the best quotes, I love when Daunis is invited by her aunt to enter a madoodiswan built up with some old blankets and tarps, she stares at her, and her auntie replies: “I´m a modern Nish kwe and I just invented it, hey?”

Ojibwe People :

“Please be careful. Not every Elder is a cultural teacher, and not all cultural teachers are Elders. It’s okay to listen to what people say and only hold on to the parts that resonate with you. It’s okay to live the rest behind. Trust yourself to know the difference”.

– Auntie Teddie to Daunis. The Firekeeper’s Daughter.

Unlike colonialism stories, Boulley gives a balanced and accurate view and narrative which I found very objective. She doesn’t hide the horrors committed by colonialism that still occurs nowadays, nor idealizes her people. I love her objectivism, not all women are described as angels, and not all men are described as saints. The plot twist at the end of the book made this clear, I´m not going to give more details to avoid spoilers.

Boulley gives real references to violence towards Indigenous People, the Boarding Schools that were authorized by the Governments to take away Indigenous People from their families, and many more themes. The horrors of First Nation Boarding Schools approved by the Canadian government are still being discovered, The Fire Daughter’s Keeper treats this topic directly through one of the most remarkable characters. I was already familiar with this (and when I was thirteen years old, I wept in a museum while reading the letter of a nine-year-old Selk’nam who wondered about his own culture and the new teachings by the missionaries), reading it here in the novel, broke my heart again, especially coming from Granny June, who Baulley created very solid and vivid almost as if she were real.

Now, of course, it is relevant to highlight Angeline Boulley’s words on Native Americans and Indigenous people:

“I really would want is for readers to know that we are still here — Indigenous people — we are still here living dynamic lives and that we are not a monolith,” she says. “There can be no one great Native American story.”

Like the author says, she can´t speak for a very heterogeneous group, but she can share a bit of the story. Even in the story, Daunies highlights the difference among Native American people. The example quoted above on the meaning of the owl also serves to illustrate this. Jaime is presented as a Cherokee but when he asks what’s wrong with the owl in the t-shirts received by the Ojibwe community, Daunis wonders:

“Either Cherokees have a different teaching about owls or else Jaime doesn’t know about his culture”.

She acknowledges that not because she is an Ojibwe all Native Americans will believe the same as she does.

IV. Warning Themes the Novel Deals with

As you follow my reviews and talks on bookstagram, I tend to avoid books that are too graphic and that deal with delicate subjects. This is because, I’m sensitive to them, and I imagine them as clearly as if I were experiencing them, and because, I had to read nonfiction stuff that was so hard to read as it got me to tears every single sentence. So, here, I’m living a content warning which I didn’t find in any promotional information but I find important to share. The Firekeeper’s Daughter deals with some delicate themes like: 

↠  Sexual Violence and Unhealthy Relationships:

Not explicitly narrated in a gross Games of Thrones style. Boulley clearly has truthful respect on this matter and I truly believe she does an excellent job of creating awareness and empathy. It was a pain to read a scene, that I almost skipped because you know, I can’t read that, it makes me sick. But, I think this is one of the most realistic descriptions I’ve read in literature, at least in fiction. Some reviews mentioned that after a terrible scene of rape, how everything seems to keep going on as if anything happened. It does not. It clearly doesn’t, the narrative style and voice change, and there is evidence of repetition of thoughts and feelings, which hints trauma of the horrible experience. 

Now, unhealthy relationships are central in the plot, but not everything is graphic. You can understand the situations clearly on unhealthy relationships, some are mentioned, others are developed more, and we get to know many different types of this: from toxic men to toxic women. Boulley makes no exception. Angeline Boulley doesn’t describe these terrible things for pure entertainment as other novels do, which I truly appreciate, she teaches readers about this and focuses more on the importance of healthy relationships as Auntie Teddie tells Daunis:

“To know love is to know peace… Real love honours your spirit. If you need a medicine to create or keep love, that’s possession and control. No love”. 

Auntie Teddie is a great figure young indigenous women can look at, as someone who loves literature and diversity, I’m glad that these characters exist nowadays. As something free spoiler but great, even Daunis reflects on this during the novel.

↠ Drug Consumption:

A considerably important part of the plot deals with drug trafficking, consumption, preparation and the terrible effects that produce. As advertised, Daunis is asked to help by discovering and understanding the sources of drug circulation and making.

Boulley described in an interview with Wbur that the novel reflects on what was happening in the US and Canada in the 2000s when meth became a problem:

“It also aligned with when Indian gaming in Michigan particularly was especially lucrative, and so just that crossed paths of meth exploding and tribes having economic prosperity that, you know, they hadn’t had before,” she says. “It was what really drove the time and place of the story.”

You can read the whole interview here.

Now, of course, Baulley doesn’t support drug abuse and shed light on the destruction and problems that it can bring not only to communities but also to people we love. She also seems to describe the painful and unfair situation that some traditional medicines have received nowadays because there is misinformation, stereotypes, and misuse. Here is an example to illustrate this, where Daunis reflects on mushrooms: “They had a shared encounter with the Little People warning the kids to leave the bad medicine alone”.

↠ Suicide and Murder:

This aspect of the book was as hard as sexual assault, but fundamental for raising awareness of situations that occur in the story and that also happen in real life as the author said. In fact, it is spoiled in the advertising that Lily, Daunis’ best friend, is murdered. Boulley said in an interview that it was relevant for her story to show the reality of Native American women. By 2018 it was reported that 4 out of 5 Native American women have experienced violence and that they face murder rates 10 times the national average. Unfortunatelly, the situation continues as it is being reported this year.

The Firekeeper’s Daughter clearly generates awareness and calls for action to realize the dangerous and horrible situation Native American women are facing nowadays, despite its setting in the 2000s. The stories the female characters experience are real and some still happen nowadays.

↠ Dead and Mourning:

“When someone dies, everything about them becomes past tense. Except for the grief. Grief stays in the present“.

I must confess, that one of my favourite quotes from the book is on this theme. The author narrates these processes, specifically mourning a loved one, in a way that touched my soul. Mourning has been part of my life and I truly believe it is one of the most beautiful parts of the narrative.  Here are some beautiful quotes from the book:

“You love a person and then they are gone. Past tense. You forget them for an hour, a day, a week. How that’s even possible? It happens because memories are fickle; they can fade. I wanted to help with the investigation for Lily. Now my motives seem less clear. I am terrified at the thought of the world- and me – going on without Lily”. 

“If you knew it was the last time you were going to see someone, would you say something profound? Would you share how much they mean to you? Would you ask any burning questions? Would you ask forgiveness? Would you thank them?”

V.  Final Thoughts

I’ve selected many quotes while reading the novel, but I think my review is long enough. Once again, thanks Angeline Boulley for working on this book for more than ten years, and actually having shared it with all of us! I can’t wait to see how Netflix is going to adapt it, but I just wish and hope that Ojibwe People get involved in the production, otherwise, it would make no sense! I invite you to visit Angeline Boulley’s website to know more. 

And don’t miss the graphics I’ve done on the novel. See them here. 

Have you read The Firekeeper’s Daughter? I read you here or on bookstagram! 

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