You could describe Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley as a Native American Nancy Drew story. It is about an 18-year-old high school hockey star and science whiz with one white and one Ojibwe parent who winds up investigating wrongdoings in her Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, community. But more than that, it’s a coming-of-age story about a young woman who doesn’t feel entirely accepted or acceptable by either of her families.
Daunis Fontaine was born when her mother was 16. Her grandparents didn’t put her father’s name on her birth certificate (they weren’t fans of their daughter getting pregnant by a Native American), which means that, although she has a Native father, practices Ojibwe spirituality, speaks Anishinaabemowin, and dances in pow-wows, she is not an enrolled member of the tribe. This impacts not only her self-image but also her financial future and her ability to vote on tribal governing matters. Other characters remind her of her unenrolled status regularly— sometimes kindly, other times with malice.
She witnesses a tragedy and becomes part of the investigation. Boulley’s novel explores some big social issues—racism, gun violence, drug abuse, violence against women, sexual assault—but it never feels like “an issue book” because it’s all personal to Daunis. Either she or someone she loves is experiencing these issues.
At the same time, it’s a story about the rush of first love, the joys of community life, and the ways that spiritual practices can guide a person through difficulty. Every morning Daunis makes a gratitude offering and prayer, every time she rides the ferry she expresses gratitude, and she frequently tells other characters that she is grateful for them. It’s a striking trait, and one that has stuck with me long after finishing the book.
As a story about contemporary teens, there is a little swearing, some under-aged drinking, and premarital sex. But if those do not prevent you from enjoying a story, I highly recommend Fire Keeper’s Daughter. The characters are richly drawn, the community felt real, the plotting is tight, and it made me stay up way too late on a work night to see how it ended. (Henry Holt & Co.)