One of this year’s most buzzed about young adult novels is “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley.
The thriller follows the story of Daunis Fontaine, an 18-year-old high school student figuring out where she fits in, both in her hometown and on the Ojibwe reservation. She meets Jamie, a charming new recruit on her brother’s hockey team and eventually falls for him, even as she senses he is hiding something.
When Daunis witnesses a shocking tragedy, she’s thrust into an FBI investigation where she agrees to go undercover and puts her life on the line to find the truth and save her community. Along the way, she also learns what it means to be a strong Ojibwe woman.
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Boulley’s debut novel, which has been described as a mesmerizing page-turner, is a timely read that touches on many topics including the tribal community and the drug crisis. It took Boulley 10 years to write and sparked from an idea she had when she was 18.
Boulley told “Good Morning America” that when she was in her senior year of high school, her friend — who went to a different school — told her about a boy who was “just her type.” It turned out that boy was an undercover narcotics officer, who helped uncover a huge drug bust at her friend’s school.
“I thought: What if I had been in classes with that guy? What if I liked him? What if he liked me?” said Boulley. “And then really the thing that sparked the story was: What if it wasn’t the he liked me, but that he needed my help? That just really triggered the story for me and sparked something — this thought of: What if some undercover investigation needed the help of an ordinary girl?”
While the book doesn’t hit stores until March 16, many are already anticipating its release, including the Obamas, who are currently adapting Boulley’s book for a TV series through their production company, Higher Ground.
When asked about who she’d like to star in the series, Boulley said her dream cast includes actor Forrest Goodluck, a young native actor who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s son in “‘The Revenant” and Devery Jacobs.
“It’s really important to have native actors, creative talent in front of the camera but also behind the camera, and that was one thing that Higher Ground Productions felt strongly as I did about it,” said Boulley who will be an executive producer for the series.
Get started reading “Firekeeper’s Daughter” with an excerpt below.
I am a frozen statue of a girl on my knees in the woods. Only my eyes move, darting from the gun to her startled expression.
Gun. Shock. Gun. Disbelief. Gun. Fear.
The snub-nosed revolver shakes with tiny tremors from the jittery hand aiming at my face..
I’m gonna die.
My nose twitches at a greasy sweetness. Familiar. Vanilla and mineral oil. WD-40. Someone used it to clean the gun. More scents: pine, damp moss, skunky sweat, and cat pee.
The jittery hand makes a hacking motion with the gun, as if wielding a machete instead. Each diagonal slice towards the ground gives me hope. Better a random target than me.
But then terror grips my heart. The gun. Back at my face.
Mom. She won’t survive my death. One bullet will kill us both.
A brave hand reaches for the gun. Fingers outstretched. Demanding. Give it. Now.
I am thinking of my mother when the blast changes everything.
PART I: WAABINONG (EAST)
In Ojibwe teachings, all journeys begin in the eastern direction.
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 5-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 zoong- idewin 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 15-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 bulb 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.
Excerpted from the book Firekeeper’s Daughter © 2021 by Angeline Boulley. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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