Angeline Boulley is a former co-worker of mine, and though I don’t know her well, I was excited for her first novel to come out, and even more excited to receive an advanced review copy. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I wasn’t. In fact, this book was everything I could ask for, with its rich cultural background, well-developed characters and a riveting story.
Daunis Fontaine is an 18-year-old living in the Sault Ste. Marie area of the Upper Michigan Peninsula, near the Canadian border. As a biracial teen, Daunis straddles two worlds and doesn’t quite fit in either. Her father, who she barely knew, is from the Ojibwe tribe. Daunis cares deeply about the tribe and its culture, but struggles to find her place as an unenrolled member with skin that is seen as too light.
She was getting ready to leave home for college when her uncle died and her grandmother had a stroke. Now she feels she needs to stay for her family. She also struggles with trust issues, especially where romantic relationships are concerned. Her best friend has a disastrous relationship with her ex, who’s a meth addict, and Daunis’ own first love ended badly. Into that mix comes Jamie, a new recruit on the hockey team and a friend of her half-brother Levi.
This book is considered YA, and at first I thought it might be a little young for me. As I got into it, I changed my mind. Daunis may think like an 18-year-old, but the world she’s living in is so complicated, there is nothing “young” about this story. Sadly, she’s forced to be much older than she should be. Daunis’ struggle to understand what it means to be a “strong Ojibwe woman” is impacted by the persistent racism around her and the effects of years of trauma inflicted on her people (such as the Boarding Schools).
In addition to the layers I’ve already described, Boulley also writes about gender inequities and abuse in a way that felt very real (for example, the idolization of sports figures and the pervasiveness of sexual assault).
The first half moves a bit slowly, as there’s a lot of background to explain, and quite a bit of detail about Ojibwe culture and traditions. Then the story develops into a mystery-thriller about drug use on the reservation, and I couldn’t put it down, reading the entire second half in one night and staying up much later than I meant to. I love a mystery where the author incorporates a lot of research, and it’s clear that Boulley did her research, from the making of meth, to the operations of an FBI investigation, to botany and the scientific method. Even hockey was written about in a level of detail that made feel I was right there. For some readers this might be a bit much, but I loved it.
I particularly loved the author’s use of tribal language throughout the book, and the idea that how we use words matter. At the same time, the way the young characters talked to each other, particularly through texts, felt natural and modern, and there are references to pop culture from the early 2000s (when the book is set) throughout. At one point early in the book there was a conversation that seemed really stilted and didn’t feel real – and then it turns out there’s a reason for that.
The title refers not only to Daunis’ paternal ancestry, but to a tribal myth about the Firekeeper’s daughter. She starts each day by singing and raises the sun – but to Daunis this feels like a burden, and she’s bothered by the fact that the daughter in the story never has her own identity, not even a name.
Boulley brings us a really thoughtful story, not just about romance but about family and finding one’s own identity. This is the kind of book where you’ll find much to identify with, and at the same time you’ll learn so much about a world you don’t know. I particularly appreciated that the characters had layers and flaws, particularly Daunis and Jamie, and none of the relationships were oversimplified (Daunis’ relationship with her mother is a good example).
I wish this book had given us an afterword as I would have liked to know more about Boulley’s influences and research. From interviews, I know that much of this book is based on her own upbringing and heritage, but I’d love to know more.
Congrats to Angeline Boulley on a fantastic first novel, and I look forward to reading her next one.
Note: I received an advance reading copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Henry Holt and Co. The book publishes March 16, 2021.