Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter, a murder-mystery/thriller/YA romance and coming-of-age hybrid is one of the most acclaimed debut novels of recent history – but is the hype too good to be true?
At the center of our murder mayhem-filled modern bildungsroman is Daunis Fontaine, a biracial, unenrolled tribal member that struggles with fitting into her hometown and a nearby Ojibwe reservation. Yet Daunis quickly finds more immediate troubles plaguing both her life and that of others. As her community progressively gets more and more corrupted by matters of drug trafficking and the mysterious deaths of Native women, the young Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) tackles the issues headfirst – by agreeing to go undercover, acting as an official FBI informant.
The large sum of accolades the book has garnered owes itself to its complexity and intriguing synopsis. Not many debut novels infuse elements of Native American ethnography with a whodunit, female-lead Young Adult criminal mystery – much less in a debut.
Yet upon further inspection, the aforementioned complexity proves itself to be the ultimate Achilles’ heel of an otherwise fascinating, innovative, and much-needed concept.
The detailed and interesting depiction of Ojibwe culture
If there is one thing Boulley excels at with this novel, it’s the outlook the author offers on the life and lore of the Ojibwe community. With bits and pieces of tribal culture inserted into each page, the book is rich in character. Ranging from various traditional medicine and their use, to beliefs regarding death and the afterlife, Firekeeper’s Daughter makes for an exciting and refreshing read about a world of Native culture.
The representation of the ongoing oppression and discrimination of Native communities
Whilst the story itself takes place in 2004, it sheds light on issues tribal community members still face today. Whether it’s presented through our leading character’s struggle with daily microaggressions, or the overarching theme of acceptance and acknowledgment of her identity, Boulley seldom shies away from creating a photorealistic depiction of life as a Native. To add, a large number of the criminal mysteries and their unfortunate victims largely tie into this – making for a complex illustration of Ojibwe struggles all around.
A bloated storyline marked by continuous tedium
Spanning a little over 500 pages, the book is virtually double the page count of a conventional Young Adult novel. And while it’s true that Firekeeper’s Daughter is perhaps nothing like your average Y.A. read, the author simply fails to deliver the complexity of the plot justice. Dedicating a larger number of pages to this novel wouldn’t have been a bad idea in itself – had it been done differently. In its current state, Boulley’s debut is riddled with pages where the same course of action is repeated on a chapterly basis, and not in a way that adds depth or moves the story forward. What’s more, the excess of trouble popping up around every corner cheapens the overall urgency of the story – and the fact that our characters never seem to be that much affected by them doesn’t help. As a result, the mystery aspect of the book reads much more like a modern soapy drama, reminiscent of infamous scripted The CW broadcasts.
As the two last points to this overarching issue, the tedium of this novel also presents itself through its pacing problem – considerably slow for the most of it, partially due to repetition and in part due to passages filled with unnecessarily detailed descriptions.
Any reader whose first thriller mystery read is not Firekeeper’s Daughter is advised to steer away from this story – everything that could happen, does happen, and anyone that you suspect of being the bad guy does turn out to be the bad guy. Nothing else to say here – if your only goal with this book is to read a fascinating page-turner full of unforeseeable twists, this is not the book for you. Especially not when it takes ¾ of the story (about 400 pages) to get to a disappointing reveal.
An unlikeable protagonist
Daunis Fontaine is a flawed character that not only lacks development, but the self-awareness about her flaws. Starting off, her character is written like the poster child of an outdated, anti-feminist model – the notorious “I’m not like other girls” stereotype. She regularly passes judgment at female characters that do not share her knowledge or passion for chemistry or sports, and calls the girlfriends of hockey players ’anglerfish’ because they ’latch onto their boyfriends’. While the author could have developed her character to later on realize her flaws and abandon such outdated beliefs, she refused to do so. As a result, Daunis comes off as a snarky, smug character, who is just plain hard to root for.
Adding to this, the way her “uniqueness” is portrayed is underwhelming and surface-level as well. She inserts random science-related knowledge in her conversations and sometimes creates lists – that’s pretty much it for her so-called superiority. All in all, Daunis Fontaine is just not the right protagonist for this novel.
An overwhelming roster of underdeveloped characters
Almost every single character in this book can be summed up in seven words or less – Daunis is not like other girls, her mother cries often and worries a lot, Rob is a cold, detached FBI agent and Jamie often pinches the bridge of his nose.
If you read the entire book, it would be a challenge to find out anything else about these personalities. Sometimes side characters are tossed a relatively interesting backstory, but even those can be quickly forgotten due to the excessive roster of other characters fighting for their own detailed outline.
The forced romantic interest.
It’s hard not to think that the author tossed in a male romantic interest for any reason other than the audience retention of those who must find a love story in every Y.A. novel.
Quite simply put, the romance between Daunis and Jamie feels forced and unnatural – none of these characters have a reason to fall for each other. In Daunis’ case, the only reason she backs up her fondness of Jamie with is his abdomen, the curly hair, and how he pinches the bridge of his nose a lot. In the realms outside of physical lust, Daunis is not visibly attracted to Jamie’s personality (partially because he has none), and oftentimes it even feels like she despises him. And if you were to ask a licensed psychiatrist (or anyone with common sense) about Jamie’s feelings for our female protagonist, they would most likely tell you that his sentiments are a mix of remorse, responsibility, and an obsessive need for tribal connection.
The absence of a glossary
While the cultural side of the novel is an absolute delight, the author’s decision to not include a glossary for the various Native terms and language used many times in the book can lead to reader frustration. Although Boulley’s reasoning behind this was to avoid “white-censoring” the book, many of the phrases included in the book are hard to find a translation for, and contrary to her belief, the meaning can not always be derived from context
The sexual assault
Without giving crucial plot aspects away, a character goes through severe sexual abuse in one of the book’s later chapters. Many readers might find this addition to the book unnecessary and triggering, especially considering the lack of a content warning. It’s futile to argue whether it ultimately aids the book in any way or not as perspectives will always be divided, but many might argue that readers should be made aware of the existence of such a heavy scene, and the book failed to do so.
While Firekeeper’s Daughter sets out to deliver one of the most promising storylines the world of Native representation in literature has seen, its bloated execution, the lack of proper editing, a predictable line of events, empty-shell characters, and an unfitting protagonist make it one of the most disappointing authorial debuts, and 500 pages of wasted potential. It does deliver on some intriguing information regarding our characters’ cultures and lives, but that alone does not save the novel from its overall cluttered and uninspired nature.