Group Discussion: Firekeeper’s Daughter

*As is usual with our discussions, there may be a few spoilers ahead, so beware.*

We all were incredibly excited to read Angeline Boulley’s FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER when we first heard about it, so we decided to make it our second group discussion book for the year.  Come join us!

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.

[Note: While we will not go into any great detail in this discussion, Firekeeper’s Daughter contains murder, suicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, addiction and drug use, racism, colorism, and death of parents/family members.

You can read an excerpt of the book here!]

Audrey: To get us started–let’s talk about this gorgeous cover! The cover art was created by Moses Lunham and designed by Rich Deas. The first thing I noticed when I got my copy of the book was that the two faces at the top had different skin tones. According to this interview, author Angeline Boulley says that “the different shades of the faces symbolizes Daunis claiming her biracial identity,” which is a major part of the book.

Jessica: The cover is so beautiful. It’s next to me on my desk right now and I can’t stop looking at it. Love how the cover ties into the themes of the book.

K. Imani: This cover is absolutely beautiful! I love the design of the faces looking like a butterfly as well as the bird and bear (I think) and the fire. There are so many subtle images in this cover that you can almost find something new each time. And the colors are so stunning. Like you Audrey, I noticed the faces had different skin tones which I found interesting and made me wonder what was going to happen in the book. Knowing the faces symbolize Daunis’s biracial identity now is powerful and really brings home the meaning of the book.

Crystal: I agree that the cover is gorgeous. In addition to the aspects of her physical appearance and physical identity, Daunis’ cultural identity is also displayed within the illustrations with bears representing her clan. In addition there are the birds like the one that guides her and the sun is in the background too which is from the story of the original Fire Keeper’s Daughter. The faces forming a butterfly is also just brilliant for a coming-of-age story. There’s so much to see. Each time I notice more.

Audrey: Daunis, our heroine, is on the older end of the YA protagonist spectrum at 18. She’s dealing with a lot of upheaval in her life, and things only get more complicated in short order. Something I really liked about Daunis was how often she thought about and evaluated what her responsibilities were–to her family, to her friends, to her community, and to herself. These sometimes complementary, sometimes competing, responsibilities strongly influenced her decisions.

Jessica: You mention the complementary and sometimes competing responsibilities — that’s exactly it. I loved how her thought process was explored throughout the book in such a thorough and complex way. The way Daunis balances and reconciles the interests of her community with what the FBI wants from her and her quest for justice is laid out really clearly. Sometimes, narratives can tend toward simplistic, binary summations of the issues people, especially from marginalized communities, face — but that’s just not the case, and Daunis really highlights that. To be honest, I was a little nervous at the introduction of law enforcement and the FBI, given the racism and oppression baked into these institutions, but the way Daunis navigates her interactions with them, plus the way other members of the community tell the truth about these institutions, really played out in such a nuanced way. (I really, really hope that the Netflix adaptation keeps these nuances and hard truths in the show, but I suspect that won’t be the case, unfortunately.)

K. Imani: I enjoyed that Daunis was 18 and on the cusp of adulthood. So many YA novels focus on the character’s high school life but a lot does happen and teens do grow and change a lot in that year after high school. Many have left home for college (that was me) or working full time and they are learning how to navigate a life that was not completely so structured. In addition to having to deal with changing friendships as people move away or just become busy. It’s a unique time and I loved that we got to spend time with Daunis as she was going through this change. She was learning how to become an adult in one of the most stressful ways possible, and sometimes I felt she was a little too idealistic, but I’m glad that she kept her truth throughout and was focused on helping her community in addition to helping the FBI. Her perspective helped keep the investigation grounded in what mattered which wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t involved.

Crystal: Daunis balances a lot of responsibilities and really tries to follow what she’s learned from elders. She considers how her actions may affect all of her relatives within her family, clan, community, and beyond. Boulley embedded a lot of elder wisdom within Daunis’ inner dialogue such as thinking about the seventh generation when making decisions.

Audrey: One of the things that I really appreciated about Firekeeper’s Daughter was the depth of the setting and the characters in it. While Boulley says that Daunis’s tribe is fictionalized in the author note, it’s clear how much care and thought Boulley put into creating Daunis’s community. It’s filled with people who have complex histories (both within and between Native and non-Native groups), with differing opinions and prejudices and goals.

Jessica: This really highlights how important it is to have stories where cultures and communities aren’t portrayed as a monolith. It’s not just the right thing to do, it makes for a better and more accurate story. I read Firekeeper’s Daughter and watched the TV show Rutherford Falls back to back, which really drove home the power of depicting a community with nuance. (Also, sidebar: Highly recommend checking out Rutherford Falls, which does this really well.)

K. Imani: One of my favorite aspects of Firekeeper’s Daughter were the elders in Daunis’s tribe and how we got to hear many of their individual stories which showed the complexity of real life. I loved that Daunis listened to her elders, really took in their stories and learned from them. Her interactions with the elders greatly contributed to her growing sense of self and her desire to help her community. And this is where this novel being truly #ownvoices shines because of Boulley’s connection to her community that she took great care in making sure Daunis’s tribe felt real and authentic as well as culturally accurate. It was not full of stereotypes but filled with real people who had real lives and real stories. I was drawn into Daunis’s community and really cared about the people that made Daunis who she is and becomes.

Crystal: Like Jessica says, there is a lot of nuance here. When you have a wide variety of characters who are not simply good or bad, the story has more power and is definitely more believable. The people in our everyday lives are also complex and have a story if only we take the time to listen. This is what Daunis excels at with elders and others around her. She is paying attention and trying to connect with people. There is a lot of love throughout the book of many different types. The love is beautiful and yet also has some ugliness too in the betrayals. It’s not picture perfect and that makes it so much more real.

Audrey: Boulley tackles a lot of difficult topics in Firekeeper’s Daughter, especially ones that can hit hard on a community level. Much of the plot focuses on drug use and addiction, of course, but violence against Native women also has a significant impact on what happens in the book and affects multiple characters, including Daunis.

Crystal: Daunis and the other women are examples of the many, many, women who have been harmed in the past and the present. That’s not the whole story though. As Daunis is learning, there are many ways of being brave. Throughout the story, we see many women being strong and brave though at initial glance their actions may not seem to be either of those things. There is bravery in speaking out, but sometimes bravery requires something else. These women have done what they needed to do to survive or help their loved ones survive.

Audrey: Firekeeper’s Daughter has a complicated ending, and it left me thinking about two things. The first was how proud I was of Daunis and her character growth. There were a couple of times where she came across as very Not Like Other Girls (particularly with the hockey players’ girlfriends), but that changed over the course of the book. The second was grief at how many people and institutions failed Daunis and her community, both within and without. Just as one example, even though Daunis is a confidential informant for the FBI, the FBI doesn’t come out of this story as a Good Guy.

K. Imani: I was torn by the ending too. I so wanted justice for Daunis and Lily and for others who were murdered, but on the other hand life doesn’t always have a happy ending and I recognize that Boulley gave us that horribly realistic ending because the fight for missing and murdered Indigenous women continues and the fight for justice for Indigenous peoples. It was a heartbreaking reminder of a very real issue. On the other hand, I was so proud of Daunis as well. She was able to achieve her goals of helping out the FBI while staying true to herself and her community. She grew so much as a character and really found her place in her world.

Crystal: The ending gave me much to think about too. Daunis grew a lot as she worked through this complicated puzzle in her community. She learned much about herself and some of the assumptions folks have about others. I also really, really wanted justice, but unfortunately, would be unlikely in real life with our current justice system. I also found Jamie’s growth to be interesting. He is truly struggling with his own identity as an adopted child with Cherokee roots, but no Cherokee teachings or culture to turn to. I don’t know if a sequel or companion book is planned, but I would be interested in seeing more of their journeys whether their paths cross again or not.

Jessica: Audrey, thanks so much for leading this discussion! Now I have a question for you all — what YA books by/about BIPOC are you reading right now?

For AAPI month, I’m rereading Turtle Under Ice by Juleah del Rosario. After that, I’m planning on reading The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth, and Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart! Yes, my TBR pile is excellent. 😛

Audrey: Next up on my list are The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani, Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur, and Simone Breaks All the Rules by Debbie Rigaud. I feel like that’s a pretty good mix of genres and authors right there!

K. Imani: Since I’m needing some inspiration for my vampire manuscript, I’m re-reading and new reading some vampire novels. Currently I am reading Fledgling by Octavia Butler then up next is Renee Ahdieh’s series The Beautiful and the sequel The Damned.

Crystal: I just re-read Saints & Misfits and then dove into the sequel Misfit in Love. S.K. Ali is an author that I really enjoy and I am loving it so far. Next up is American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar along with Love & Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura. I also think my TBR is pretty stellar.

If you’ve had the chance to read FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER, please join in the discussion below! We’d love to hear what you think.