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Author Angeline Boulley Mines Native American Roots In Bestselling YA Novel 'Firekeeper's Daughter'

The cover art from "Firekeeper's Daughter" by Angeline Boulley (Courtesy)
The cover art from "Firekeeper's Daughter" by Angeline Boulley (Courtesy)

Firekeeper’s Daughter” has spent 14 weeks on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list. 

First-time author Angeline Boulley debuted at No. 1 shortly after the young adult mystery book’s publication in March.

In the book, she highlights her Ojibwe heritage, her experiences working day jobs in the tribe and her work with the U.S Department of Education. Boulley’s idea to write the book started during her senior year of high school — but she didn’t start writing the story until she was 44. And it took 10 years to finish creating it.

I think that maybe I’m just a born storyteller,” Boulley says, “and I didn’t realize it until just that spark of an idea that stayed with me and it just wouldn’t go away.”

The title “Firekeeper’s Daughter” refers to Boulley’s half-Native American heroine, Daunis Fontaine. Growing up with an Ojibwe father and white mother, Boulley often felt like an outsider in both communities.

“I’m a light-skinned Ojibwe woman. I wasn’t raised on the reservation,” Boulley says. “And so there was that feeling of I know this is who I am — like I always knew my identity — but as far as feeling maybe not enough or too much of something else, I think that was something that I just grew up with.”

Throughout her whole career in Native American education, Boulley says she connected with teenagers going through similar identity crises. She says she was inspired to write a young adult book that would tackle complex issues such as identity.

Boulley says she did not read a story that had a Native American main character until she was 18 years old. 

“Why not tell the hero’s journey but from the point of view of a young Ojibwe woman who knows her culture but still feels this outsiderness?” she says. “It’s only when she claims all the aspects of her identity does she really come into power of, you know, being the ideal confidential informant, of being her truest self.” 

In the book, Daunis becomes a confidential informant for the FBI, which is investigating the distribution of a particularly powerful form of crystal meth involving the Ojibwe community in 2004. Boulley says the book reflects the reality of what was happening when meth exploded across the country in the early 2000s.

“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.”

Boulley also explores the issue of sexual violence against women in the book. Native American women have been murdered and sexually assaulted at rates ashigh as 10 times the national average. Many of these are committed by non-Native men who rarely get reported or prosecuted.

During her time working with the Ojibwe tribe, she says she spent a lot of time hearing stories and laughing with elders in the community. Boulley wanted to honor that in the book because it was one of the best parts of being in a tribal community.

Even though her book strongly reflects her Native American community, Boulley says she fictionalized the tribe so she could be more creative with the story. 

“I felt uncomfortable speaking on behalf of my exact tribal community and telling a story that perhaps I didn’t have the authority to do so,” she says.

Boulley says she hopes “Firekeeper’s Daughter” encourages people to read more stories about other communities aside from their own and celebrate the differences between them.

“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.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtCamila Beiner adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘Firekeeper’s Daughter’

By Angeline Boulley

Chapter 1

I start my day before sunrise, throwing on running clothes and laying a pinch 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 Creator knows who I am. A name that connects me to my father—because I began as a secret, and then a scandal.

I give thanks to Creator and ask for zoongidewin, because I’ll need courage for what I have to do after my five-mile run. I’ve put it off for a week.

The sky lightens as I stretch in the driveway. My brother complains about my lengthy warm-up routine whenever he runs with me. I keep telling Levi that my longer, bigger, and therefore vastly superior muscles require more intensive preparation for peak performance. The real reason, which he would think is dorky, is that I recite the correct anatomical name for each muscle as I stretch. Not just the superficial muscles, but the deep ones too. I want an edge over the other college freshmen in my Human Anatomy class this fall.

By the time I finish my warm-up and anatomy review, the sun peeks through the trees. One ray of light shines on my semaa offering. Niishin! It is good.

My first mile is always hardest. Part of me still wants to be in bed with my cat, Herri, whose purrs are the opposite of an alarm clock. But if I power through, my breathing will find its rhythm, accompanied by the swish of my heavy ponytail. My legs and arms will operate on autopilot. That’s when my mind will wander into the zone, where I’m part of this world but also somewhere else, and the miles pass in a semi-alert haze.

My route takes me through campus. The prettiest view in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is on the other side. I blow a kiss as I run past Lake State’s newest dorm, Fontaine Hall, named after my grandfather on my mother’s side. My grandmother Mary—I call her GrandMary—insisted I wear a dress to the dedication ceremony last summer. I was tempted to scowl in the photos but knew my defiance would hurt Mom more than it would tick off GrandMary.

I cut through the parking lot behind the student union toward the north end of campus. The bluff showcases a gorgeous panoramic view of the St. Marys River, the International Bridge into Canada, and the city of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Nestled in the bend of the river east of town is my favorite place in the universe: Sugar Island.

The rising sun hides behind a low, dark cloud at the horizon beyond the island. I halt in place, awestruck. Shafts of light fan out from the cloud, as if Sugar Island is the source of the sun’s rays. A cool breeze ruffles my T-shirt, giving me goose bumps in mid-August.

“Ziisabaaka Minising.” I whisper in Anishinaabemowin the name for the island, which my father taught me when I was little. It sounds like a prayer. My father’s family, the Firekeeper side, is as much a part of Sugar Island as its spring-fed streams and sugar maple trees.

When the cloud moves on and the sun reclaims her rays, a gust of wind propels me forward. Back to my run and to the task ahead.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later, I end my run at EverCare, a long-term care facility a few blocks from home. Today’s run felt backward, peaking in the first mile and becoming progressively more difficult. I tried chasing the zone, but it was a mirage just beyond my reach.

“Mornin’, Daunis,” Mrs. Bonasera, the head nurse says from behind the front desk. “Mary had a good night. Your mom’s already here.”

Still catching my breath, I give my usual good-morning wave.

The hallway seems to lengthen with each step. I steel myself for possible responses to my announcement. In my imagined scenarios, a single furrowed brow conveys disappointment, annoyance, and the retracting of previous accolades.

Maybe I should wait until tomorrow to announce my decision.

Mrs. B. didn’t need to say anything; the heavy scent of roses in the hallway announces Mom’s presence. When I enter the private room, she’s gently massaging rose-scented lotion on my grandmother’s thin arms. A fresh bouquet of yellow roses adds to the floral saturation level.

GrandMary’s been at EverCare for six weeks now and, the month before that, in the hospital. She had a stroke at my high school graduation party. Visiting every morning is part of the New Normal, which is what I call what happens when your universe is shaken so badly you can never regain the same axis as before. But you try anyway.

My grandmother’s eyes connect with mine. Her left brow raises in recognition. Her right side is unable to convey anything.

“Bon matin, GrandMary.” I kiss both cheeks before stepping back for her inspection.

In the Before, her scrutiny of my fashion choices bugged the crap out of me. But now? Her one-sided scowl at my oversized T-shirt feels like a perfect slap shot to the top shelf.

“See?” I playfully lift my hem to reveal yellow spandex shorts. “Not half-naked.”

Halfway through her barely perceptible eye roll, GrandMary’s gaze turns vacant. It’s like a light bulb behind her eyes that someone switches on and off arbitrarily.

“Give her a moment,” Mom says, continuing to smooth lotion onto GrandMary’s arms.

I nod and take in GrandMary’s room. The large picture window with a view of a nearby playground. The dry-erase board with the heading HELLO! MY NAME IS MARY FONTAINE, and a line for someone to fill in after my nurse. The line after my goals is blank. The vase of roses surrounded by framed photographs. GrandMary and Grandpa Lorenzo on their wedding day. A duo frame with Mom and Uncle David as praying angels in white First Communion outfits. My senior picture fills a silver frame engraved with CLASS OF 2004.

The last picture taken of the four of us Fontaines—me, Mom, Uncle David, and GrandMary—at my final hockey game brings a walnut-sized lump to my throat. I went to sleep many nights listening to Mom and her brother laughing, playing cards, and talking in the language they had invented as children—a hybrid of French, Italian, abbreviated English, and made-up, nonsensical words. But that was before Uncle David died in April and GrandMary, grief-stricken, had an intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke two months later.

My mother doesn’t laugh in the New Normal.

She looks up. Her jade green eyes are tired and bloodshot. Instead of sleeping last night, Mom cleaned the house in a frenzy while talking to Uncle as if he were sitting on the sofa watching her dust and mop. She does this often. I wake up during those darkest hours, when my mother confesses her loneliness and regrets to him, unaware that I am fluent in their secret language.

While I wait for my grandmother to return to herself, I retrieve a lipstick from the basket on the bedside table. GrandMary believes in greeting the day with a perfect red smile. Gliding the matte ruby over her thin lips, I remember my earlier plea for courage. To know zoongidewin is to face your fears with a strong heart. My hand twitches; the golden tube of lipstick a jiggling needle on a seismograph.

Mom finishes with the lotion and kisses GrandMary’s forehead. I’ve been on the receiving end of those kisses so often that an echo of one warms my own forehead. I hope GrandMary can feel that good medicine even when the light bulb is off.

When my grandmother was in the hospital, I kept track of how many times she blinked during the same fifteen-minute window each day. Mom didn’t mind my record keeping until she noticed the separate tally marks for LIGHT BULB ON and LIGHT BULB OFF. The overall number of blinks hadn’t changed, but the percentage of alert ones (LIGHT BUBLB ON divided by total blinks) had begun to decrease. My mother got so upset when she saw my tally that I keep the blink notebook hidden in GrandMary’s private room now, bringing it out only when Mom isn’t here.

It happens. GrandMary blinks and her eyes brighten. LIGHT BULB ON. Just like that, her focus sharpens, and she is once again a mighty force of nature, the Fontaine matriarch.

“GrandMary,” I say quickly. “I’m deferring my admission to U of M and registering for classes at Lake State. Just for freshman year.” I hold my breath, anticipating her disappointment in my deviation from the Plan: Daunis Lorenza Fontaine, MD.

At first, I went along with it, hoping to make her proud. I grew up overhearing people whisper with a sort of vicious glee about the Big Scandal of Mary and Lorenzo Fontaine’s Perfect Life. I pretended so well, and for so long, that her plan became my plan. Our plan. I loved that plan. But that was in the Before.

GrandMary fixes me with a gaze as tender as my mother’s kisses. Something passes between my grandmother and me. She understands why I had to alter our plan.

My nose tingles with pre-cry pinpricks from relief, sadness, or both. Maybe there’s a word in Anishinaabemowin for when you find solid footing in the rubble after a tragedy.

Mom rushes around the bed, pulling me into an embrace that whooshes the air from my lungs. Her joyful sobs vibrate through me. I made my mother happy. I knew I would, but I didn’t expect to feel such relief myself. She’s been pushing for me not to go away to college, even encouraging Levi to pester me about it. Mom pleaded with me to fill out the Lake State admissions form back in January as a birthday gift to her. I agreed, thinking there was no way anything would come to pass. Turns out, there was a way.

A bird thuds against the window. My mother startles, releasing me from her grip. I only get three steps toward the window when the bird rises, fluttering to regain equilibrium before resuming its journey.

Gramma Pearl—my Anishinaabe nokomis on my Firekeeper side—considered a bird flying into a window a bad sign. She would rush outside, one leathered brown hand at her mouth, muttering “uh-uh-oh” at its crooked neck before calling her sisters to figure out which tragedy was just around the corner.

But GrandMary would say it was random and unfortunate. Nothing more than an unintended consequence of a clean window. Indian superstitions are not facts, Daunis.

My Zhaaganaash and Anishinaabe grandmothers could not have been more different. One viewed the world as its surface, while the other saw connections and teachings that run deeper than our known world. Their push and pull on me has been a tug-of-war my entire life.

When I was seven, I spent a weekend at Gramma Pearl’s tar-paper house on Sugar Island. I woke up crying with an earache, but the ferry to the mainland had shut down for the night. She had me pee in a cup, and poured it into my ear as I rested my head in her lap. Back home for Sunday dinner at GrandMary and Grandpa Lorenzo’s, I excitedly shared how smart my other grandmother was. Gramma Pearl fixed my earache with my pee! GrandMary recoiled and, a heartbeat later, glared at my mother as if this was her fault. Something split inside me when I saw my mother’s embarrassment. I learned there were times when I was expected to be a Fontaine and other times when it was safe to be a Firekeeper.

Mom returns to GrandMary, moving the cashmere blanket aside to massage lotion on a spindly, alabaster leg. She’s exhausting herself looking after my grandmother. Mom is convinced she will recover. My mother has never been good at accepting unpleasant truths.

A week ago, I woke up during one of Mom’s cleaning frenzies.

I’ve lost so much, David. And now her. When Daunis leaves, j’disparaîtrai.

She used the French word for “disappear.” To fade or pass away.

Eighteen years ago, my arrival changed my mother’s world. Ruined the life her parents had preordained for her. I am all she has left in this world.

Gramma Pearl always told me, Bad things happen in threes.

Uncle David died in April.

GrandMary had a stroke in June.

If I stay home, I can stop the third bad thing from happening. Even if it means waiting a little longer to follow the Plan.

“I should go.” I kiss Mom and then GrandMary goodbye. As soon as I leave the facility, I break into a run. I usually walk the few blocks home as a cooldown, but today I sprint until I reach my driveway. Gasping, I collapse beneath my prayer tree. Waiting for my breath to return.

Waiting for the normal part of the New Normal to begin.

Copyright © 2021 by Angeline Boulley

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.