Book review and synopsis for Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, a YA thriller set in a Native American community.
In the Firekeeper's Daughter, Daunis Fontaine's life is split between two communities, that of her white French Canadian mother and the other of the Sugar Land Ojibwe Tribe of her late father.
When Daunis witnesses a tragic murder, Daunis finds herself involved in an FBI investigation into drug trafficking in her community. However, the investigation will uncover secrets and threaten many people, including many she knows.
In this thrilling and dynamic story, Boulley tells a tale that is suspenseful, insightful and emotionally complex.
The one-paragraph version of this: Daunis Fontaine, 18, is half-white, half-native and a former hockey player whose life is divided between the non-tribal and Ojibwe communities in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. She becomes a confidential informant for an FBI investigation into a meth-trafficking ring. She falls for Jamie, a junior officer who is posing undercover as a high school student. In the end, many people are implicated, including her half-brother, Levi, and her former coach. While some justice is doled out, injustices remain as well. Daunis emerges with a clearer sense of who she is, her priorities and who she wants to be.
In Part I, Daunis Fontaine, 18, is a half-white, half-native student from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, about to begin her freshman year at Lake State, nearby. Her late father, Levi Firekeeper Sr., was a member of the Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe.
Daunis meets Jamie, a cute guy on her half-brother Levi's elite hockey team. Then, at a party, Daunis's best friend Lily is shot and killed by her meth-head boyfriend Travis, who then kills himself, too. Jamie soon reveals that he's actually an undercover cop, and he (and his supervisor Ron) have been investigating drug trafficking in the area. Daunis's Uncle David (who died recently under suspicious circumstances) was a confidential informant ("C.I.") for them, and now they want Daunis to step into his role. For her community's sake, Daunis agrees.
In Part II, Daunis helps Jamie and Ron to investigate, with Jamie posing as her boyfriend and Ron posing as Jamie's uncle. Ron eventually warns Jamie and Daunis about getting too close in their fake relationship, but by that time they have fallen for each other. Daunis also becomes an "enrolled" member of the tribe when her family discovers previously prepared paperwork from her late father.
Meanwhile, two more deaths occur, that of Heather Nodin and Robin Bailey. Both deaths involved meth. Daunis investigates by scouting out local plants, trying to look at the files of the local defense lawyer Grant Edwards, and looking into Uncle David's old files. When Grant catches Daunis looking into him, he lures her into a hotel room and rapes her. The investigation takes a turn when Daunis realizes that Levi may be involved. When she begins looking into Levi's activities, Levi's mother Dana drugs her and abducts her.
In Part III, Daunis sees that both she and Jamie are shackled in a trailer. It turns out the Levi and his friend Mike Edwards are both part of the meth ring as well. They want to force Daunis (who has a strong science background) to cook meth for them. It's also why Uncle David was killed. However, a combination of tribal Elders and tribal police are able to help rescue Daunis and Jamie. Daunis also learns her former coach, Coach Bobby, likely played a major role in the meth ring, possibly as the ringleader. Daunis dies briefly from her injuries.
In Part IV, Daunis wakes in a hospital. A number of the parties (Dana, Levi, etc.) have been charged for crimes, though crimes against Daunis are not being charged by the feds (including Grant's assault) because she is now an official tribal member and the crimes occurred on tribal lands. Mike has escaped. She's also horrified to learn that Coach Bobby is getting a plea deal in exchange for being the star witness. There's indications the meth ring was responsible for Heather death as well.
Daunis breaks up with Jamie, since he has things to figure out, but perhaps they will be together someday. She later gets a postcard, indicating he's attending law school. Daunis plans to practice traditional medicine someday. The tribe institutes rules targeted towards punishing drug dealers. The book ends with Daunis at a tribal powwow, dancing a dance that symbolizes healing.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley is set in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. The protagonist Daunis Fontaine’s life straddles two adjacent and occasionally overlapping communities, one of her white French Canadian mother and the other of the Sugar Land Ojibwe Tribe of her late father.
Author Angeline Boulley is a member of Sault Saint Marie Ojibwe tribe that features prominently in the story, and her background adds significantly to enrich the already solid story. Boulley clearly put a lot of heart into this book, and you can see it in how intentional the plot feels, in the careful attention to details and the wonderful cultural details interlaced into the story.
Through Firekeeper’s Daughter, Boulley also highlights many issues that tribal communities are faced with, such as the impact of reservation casinos, the destruction of Native lands, discrimination and how the split jurisdictions regarding police enforcement can affect the ability to get justice.
Beyond the important cultural aspects of it, there were so many other things I liked about this book as well, from the occasionally humorous narration to the complex and thrilling plot to the carefully crafted emotional journey that’s woven throughout the story.
Boulley’s protagonist, Daunis, also narrates in a way that occasionally shows off her caustic sense of humor, which I appreciated. When Daunis bests someone else at an activity that isn’t really a competition, she writes that: “It feels petty of me to take satisfaction in the comparison, but I ride that petty horse all the way back to the hotel.”
Overall, the book is a suspenseful and complex story. At times it feels like it’s trying to tackle too much at once, but Boulley manages her story deftly so the plotlines don’t overwhelm the book. There are probably some parts of it that could have been streamlined — it’s a hefty book — but it kept my attention the whole way through.
When the book starts, it reads like a standard YA book, with the focus on high-school type concerns, teenage relationships and whatnot. As the story progresses though, the plot and relationships become much more complex, and the book ventures into other territories as Daunis deals with both death and drug usage in her community. I think this book could have been categorized as general fiction instead of YA, and I think this book is appropriate for readers of general fiction and older YA readers (there’s drug usage, sex and sexual assault in the book).
I should mention that the cultural information is really interesting and worth knowing, but there is a bit of an information dump at the beginning of the book. I feel like it could have been spaced out a bit more evenly instead of being front-loaded. It’s also incorporated in a kind of an inorganic way. Basically, the book opens with a new guy in town, Jamie. A number of the first few chapters consist mainly of our protagonist, Daunis, showing him around and explaining things to him (and by extension, us).
That said, a little less than a quarter of the way in, the plot kicks into high gear and starts to get really interesting. I’d recommend that if you’ve started the book and are wondering whether to continue, to at least get about a quarter of the way in before deciding.
Read it or Skip it?
I was impressed by Boulley’s debut novel. I enjoyed the thriller aspects of it and learned a lot about some aspects of tribal life. It also proved to be a more insightful and thoughtful novel than I’d been expecting. I really hope to see this book pop up on some bestseller lists soon, since it’s a really quite solid and you can tell how much heart was put into this book.
I’d recommend this to both general fiction readers and older YA readers. While the plot moves along fairly steadily, it’s a little too hefty and serious in tone to be a quick or casual read. Instead, I’d recommend reading this when you’re ready to hunker down with a book for a while.
Narrated by: Isabella Star LaBlanc Length: 14 hours 13 minutes
I only listened to a little of the audiobook, but it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of Ojibwe words in the book. While the narrator does not seem to be Ojibwe, she is Native American so I would assume the pronunciation is at least somewhat accurate or at least more accurate than it would otherwise be.
(UPDATE: Multiple commenters have pointed out that apparently no, the pronunciation of those words were not accurate.)
That’s probably a good reason to consider listening to this on audiobook (I didn’t just because I also needed to get accurate spellings of words to write this review/guide!)