Published by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) on March 16, 2021
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult
Pages: 496 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Debut author Angeline Boulley crafts a groundbreaking YA thriller about a Native teen who must root out the corruption in her community, for readers of Angie Thomas and Tommy Orange.
As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.
The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.
Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home.
Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she'll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
I’ve procrastinated on writing this review because there is just so much to unpack with this novel. At almost 500 pages, I didn’t expect this contemporary/mystery book to lean so far into the realm of a thriller, but it’s one of the most well-written mysteries I’ve read in a long time (and probably the best one I’ve read so far in 2021).
The story follows 18 year old protagonist Daunis, who is a half-Native, unenrolled tribal member and the outcome of a scandal between her Native father and her white, upper class mother. Daunis often struggles with her biracial identity, as her Native culture is so important to her but she feels there are elements that make her an “outsider” to her fully Native relatives and friends. On top of her own scandal-induced existence, she also has a half-brother who is fully Native and near the same age as her who she is also close to. These family dynamics and the personal growth Daunis goes through would be enough for the foundation of a solid story, but there’s a whole added mystery element too. Daunis gets roped into a federal drug crime investigation, become an undercover informant and vacillating between wanting to protect her community by shielding them but also trying to save them by helping expose the drug-related crime happening as well.
I really enjoyed learning about Daunis’ Native culture and background through the course of the story. I unfortunately have not seen many Native focused YA stories be prominently promoted in recent years and I’m so glad this one is getting buzz and hope that more do! It was so interesting to see how Duanis reconciles her Native heritage with her more contemporary, WASP-y side, and balances her father’s traditional beliefs and cultures while still trying to have a relationship with her grandmother who is rather close-minded and has at least some racist stereotypes and beliefs. In particular, I love how the elders in Daunis’ tribal community played such an important role not just by providing important insight about the tribe’s history when Daunis needed it for her investigation, but also for being there for Daunis in a BIG way when she needed it at the climax of the novel. It was cool seeing Duanis not just navigate her own biracial identity but also bridge the gap between what it’s like to be Native today vs. the experiences and history the elders carry with them.
I’ll admit, I haven’t read a ton of YA that focuses on drug trafficking/drug addiction, but I think the story handles the topic well while not minimizing the trauma it has on Native communities, and the subsequent exploitation that happens. Yet the story also does a good job at not stereotyping drug addicts or those who fall into the toxic trafficking business- there’s some really heart-wrenching deaths and disintegration of relationships that happen to Duanis that goes to show how much there is going on under the surface for every individual- from those who are suffering from their own traumas and use addiction as an escape to those who themselves are not addicts but prey upon those who are for financial gain. It was overall a very nuanced portrayal of many, many sensitive topics. In addition to the topics of drug addiction/trafficking, there’s also several other issues that go hand in hand with those topics that are addressed in the plot, such as racism, sexism, assault, suicide and more. At times it can be a really difficult read, but one that is rewarding not just from a plot resolution of the mystery standpoint, but rewarding in the sense that it’s so important that these issues are addressed for what they are and not watered down to be more palatable.
Overall: Firekeeper’s Daughter was not only an engaging thriller, but tackled multiple social issues and confronting the injustices done against Native communities while still showcasing their beautiful, vibrant and resilient culture. While the book was overall a little lengthy for my taste, I think it’s YA novel that should be on everyone’s TBR list.