How Angeline Boulley preserves and protects her Native culture in YA thriller Firekeeper's Daughter
The author's groundbreaking debut novel follows Daunis Fontaine, an Ojibwe teen struggling with her identity after she witnesses a shocking murder and gets thrust into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug affecting Native tribes. "I'm writing something that very much celebrates my community," Boulley tells EW. "When I was growing up, I never read a story with a main character like myself. I never read a story with a character that had a Native dad and a non-Native mom, and the kinds of things that I had to deal with. But I couldn't be alone — there had to be other people who go through similar things in claiming your identity as a Native person and the things that you go through to get to that place of certainty where you're like, 'I am an Ojibwe woman,' and being very proud of that and secure in your identity."
Because she never saw that for herself in the books she read, she knew she had to write it herself. "We've been sorely lacking that in literature," she says. And centering the addictive YA mystery-thriller on a strong, young Native woman who plays hockey, dates hot guys, and combines traditional medicine with modern science challenges preconceived notions about the Ojibwe way of life. "So much of what's been written with a Native main character is set a long time ago. Too many people think that we exist in the past. We are here. This is happening. I hope readers are left with, 'Wow, I never knew this. I wonder what tribes are near me, I wonder what their history is, and what their tribal members are doing today?'"
But in bringing much-needed Native representation to the YA genre, the author was also careful not to exploit her culture. "The most important thing was to share what was appropriate and to not share things that aren't intended to be outside of my community, and the best example of that is ceremonies," she says of how Daunis participates in her tribal community gatherings. "I had this mantra while I was writing: I write to preserve my culture, but I edit to protect it. And sharing ceremonies outside of our community is not something that would be appropriate."
The author also took care in making sure she didn't take on the "responsibility" of representing her specific tribe. "I did fictionalize the tribe, and I changed the name, just so that I could have more creative license with where I wanted the story to go and maybe some of the circumstances involved," she says.
Firekeeper's Daughter — soon to be adapted into a Netflix TV series by the Obama's production company Higher Ground — isn't just based on Boulley's own culture; it also was inspired by something that happened to her (or rather, her friend) in high school. "The story came to me a really long time ago and I've been writing it and revising for 10 years," she says. "A friend of mine went to a different school and told me about a new guy in her class. We would talk about him, and I never met him but at the end of the year she let me know that he was actually an undercover narcotics officer."
Daunis finds herself in a similar situation because Boulley often wondered how she would have handled that kind of discovery. "What if I would have liked him? And what if he would have liked me?" Boulley says. "And then I started thinking, 'Well, what if it wasn't that he liked me, but he needed my help? Why would someone need a young person's help?'"
Boulley has a long history of working in different tribal communities, and her experiences helped her shape that initial idea into a full-fledged story. "It percolated for a really long time before it came to me that, set in a tribal community with a young woman who is very strong in her culture, very good at science and chemistry, that this would be really the ideal undercover operative in an investigation," she says. "It just fascinated me of what strengths this young woman would have, and maybe that she wouldn't know that she had, but would discover that actually all of the things about her that maybe she had thought were hindrances or things that she had to overcome, they were actually her strengths and made her the ideal person to protect her community in this way."
While Boulley hopes the heart-pounding action and powerful emotional stakes keep readers invested, she also hopes to inspire curiosity and hope. "Maybe if people picked it up and started reading it because of the thriller aspect, when they close that book, I want them to be stunned and reeling from the story that they just read and that it has a profound impact on them and how they view Native communities and Native people," she says. "And then for Native readers, for them just to feel seen. I hope that it really resonates with readers that see it as a resource to start to ask questions about finding their way back to their community."
Firekeeper's Daughter will be available for purchase here beginning March 16.
A version of this story appears in the February 2021 issue of Entertainment Weekly. To read more, order a copy or find it on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.