Angeline Boulley spent her summers immersed in the Sault Tribe’s Ojibwe heritage, exploring Sugar Island and bonding with the fire keeper whom she called “Father.”
“The story behind my story started when I was 18-years-old,” Boulley told the more than 150 LSSU Kenneth J. Shouldice Library attendees at Wednesday night’s book signing. “I grew-up downstate in New Buffalo and every summer we would come up to visit my grandparents and cousins.”
Their teachings served as guides in a treasure map to self-discovery, leading to a book deal for writing “Fire Keeper’s Daughter.”
The writer’s creative licence established a fictional story in which main character, biracial Daunis Fontaine, discovers her identity when going undercover to solve a “devastating” island murder.
The St. Marys river between the U.S. and Canada and its waters nurtured the author’s vision.
“I had a dream when I was 18,” Boulley said. “I always believed my story was bigger than myself. If I worked hard at improving my writing to be worthy of telling this story.”
Motivation rose from a fire within, burning Indigenous pride and love into the hearts of readers to crumble any cultural barriers and misconceptions.
“Lily’s been my best friend since sixth grade, when she came to live with Granny June. We look like opposites, and not just because of our height difference. I am so pale. The other Nish kids called me Ghost, and I once overheard someone referred to me as ‘that washed out sister of Levi's.’ When Lily lived with her Zhaaganaash dad and his wife, they kept her out of the sun, so her reddish-brown skin wouldn't get any darker. We both learned early on that there is an Acceptable Anishinaabe Skin Tone Continuum, and those who land on its outer edges have to put up with some different versions of the same bullshit.” – Chapter 2, page 13
There is no Lily, nor Granny June, but truth resides in cultural divides experienced among ethnic groups nationwide, to which Boulley has written, “Strong Ojibwe women are like the tide, reminding people of forces too strong to control. Weak People fear that strength. They won’t vote for a Nish kwe they fear.”
A “spark of an idea” had been branded into Boulley’s mind, barring silence from the sidelines. She had a dream.
“I went to Central Michigan University, and I was the first person in my family to go to college … After I graduated, I ended up working for the local Indian tribe there. I worked for a tribe in Mount Pleasant. I got to know my students and community. There were two women who worked in the community and, for whatever reason, they took me under their wings. They are the inspiration for ‘Aunt Teddy’ in the book. I wanted to be a strong Nish kwe like they were.”
Boulley worked hard to achieve the success of her role models, eventually manifesting that branded idea into something much greater than ever predicted.
Unlike her surrogate aunts, at day’s end she closed her eyes only to dream in story books.
She thought it was normal to have perfectly constructed dreams, plotted out from beginning to end. So, she did what writers do.
Over the course of 10 years, while raising children and enduring divorce, she wrote.
In the absence of traditional creative writing training, she deployed all knowledge and skills to write even better.
Eventually, the visualized puzzle pieces came together in a 494-page novel.
“Angeline used to live only three blocks away,” said LSSU Library Director Marc Boucher. “When she lived up here, she worked for the Tribe of Chippewa Indians as their education director. She left that position to go to Washington D.C., where she was the director for the U.S. Office of Indian Education (OIE). She just recently won the (Michael L.) Printz Award for the best young adult book from the American Library Association and she also won the Morris Award (William C. Morris YA Debut Award) for the best debut novel.”
The book was published on March 16, 2021. It hit The New York Times and IndieBound bestseller’s list shortly thereafter.
Time Magazine has included the book in its "100 Best YA Books of All Time."
It has received all-star reviews and ratings from the Booklist, Publishers Weekly, NPR and Kirkus. As of today, it has 20 foriegn language deals.
Taking it all in, one page and one breath at a time, Boulley knew her story was sound from the moment she set down her pen.
Her daughter read while she wrote, claiming the story to be better than “Twilight.” At which point, Boulley thought, “I am on to something.”
“Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has this incredible medicine wheel available online,” said Boulley. “What if I overlaid that? What if I told the hero’s journey from an Indigenous young woman’s perspective. I used the medicine wheel as a cultural framework for telling that story? Once I had that figured out, I knew my story; I knew I would get published; I knew it would be good.”
Boulley was living in Washington D.C. when she pitched her book on Twitter in a one-day “Diverse Voices Pitch” event, immediately earning the attention of 60 agents and 20 editors.
It read: “When 18-year-old Daunis witnesses a devastating murder, she must use her knowledge of chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicines to figure out who is behind a deadly new drug and protect her tribal community before she loses anyone else.”
After two weeks of querying, Boulley chose an agent and worked on a short revision based on feedback. In September of 2020, the agent electronically submitted the book to traditional publishers.
“We went out on submission that Thursday and had our first offer on Sunday,” Boulley said. “It was so exciting. There was a 12-way book auction.”
Offers were submitted by 11:30 a.m. that same day, as Boulley worked diligently in the department of education. On lunch break, she spoke with her agent to pick only five publishers to submit final offers by 3:30 that afternoon. The clock struck 1:30 p.m. and the phone rang again.
“Can you talk?” Boulley’s agent asked. “I knew it was outside of the plan but I have learned that if she calls me and asks if I want to talk, I want to take that call. I went into a stairwell at the U.S Department of Ed for reception. She told me what the best and final offer was from Macmillan. It was beyond anything that I could have dreamt.”
The seven-figure advance was life-altering to say the least, permitting her children and future grandchildren to study anything of their choosing without the crippling fear of student loan debt. But there was more.
“Two weeks after the book auction, the same process happened with film writing,” said Boulley. “There were eight different companies interested in acquiring the option to adapt my book into either a feature film or series.”
While this sounded exciting, Boulley was also aware that she would lose rights to the world she created in print.
“You have to be willing to let go,” she noted, making clear that proper representation was her main objective. “I wanted native creative talent, not just in front of the camera. I wanted it behind the camera, in the writer’s room and at every level of production.”
One company asked Boulley if there were any native screen-writers. At which point, she took a stand against engaging in film production with anyone she had to teach “Natives 101” to.
“When I talked to Higher Ground Productions, which is the company started by Barack and Michelle Obama, the response of those executives was the complete opposite,” said Boulley.
The agent called again and asked, “Can you talk?”
That was when Boulley learned the production company would be seeking final approval from the Obamas.
The former president read over the manuscript that weekend. Meanwhile, Boulley replayed and reread a questionable sex abuse scene, thinking, President Barack Obabma just read it.
According to federal government data compiled by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, Indigenous Americans are 2.5 times more likely to have experienced sexual assault. Further, one in three native women have reported rape. However, a 2010 GAO Study determined U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse, firearms violations, homicide and other violent crimes cases against these women. Thus, many female victims believe nothing will be done if they report such crimes.
It is important to note, these statistics apply to all U.S. tribes and do not accurately represent the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, whose name was altered in the book to “Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe.” The Sault tribe is highly involved in its surrounding community.
“I chose to do business with them, so my book will be adapted into a Netflix series,” she said. “We are hoping it will come out in 2023. I will be an executive producer. I will also be a script consultant.”
Around mid-December the agent called again... “Can you talk?”
“Reese Witherspoon picked your book for her young adult book club,” Boulley’s agent said. “We are going to move your release date back two weeks, so it can coincide with Reese’s announcement.”
Although excited, the Firekeeper’s daughter had just learned her 80-year-old dad had been diagnosed with COVID. She did well to manage anxieties.
“Life happens,” Boulley said. “You are living your dream and then something happens. It’s about enjoying the great moments because they won’t last. Enjoy them because they are here. Bad things happen but bear with it and know that it will pass as well.”
She opened the microphone for questions.
“What made you change some of the things, so that it wasn’t exactly how Lake State is?” asked Boucher. “It is pretty awesome. I am not sure why you would want to change any of it.”
Boulley elaborated on her creative licence as a writer, especially when protecting her own tribe.
“I think it was the smartest decision that I have made, because people from my tribe can love the story and not feel personally attacked,” she said. “If I had kept details about the tribe the same, I think there would be people saying, “Who is she to tell our story?’ Similarly with Lake State. I didn’t want it to be identical. I wanted it to be clear that this is a work of fiction and, yes, it is rooted in real places but it is very much a work of fiction.”
“The second question is, when they do filming, are there any plans to film it on our beautiful campus?” Boulley introduced Macmillan editor Jess Harold, who was seated next to Sault Tribe Chairperson Aaron Payment.
“Today we drove her around to Tribal Admin., and the Big Bear Arena,” said Boulley about the personalized EUP tour. “We went to a lot of different places. I took her to Sugar Island and… Hilltop (whispering). I just wanted her to see different places and I don’t have a say in location shoots.”
However, Boulley added that she could not see the series could be filmed anywhere but Chippewa County. She remains hopeful that the series will be shot around the area.
“Getting to be here has been incredible,” Harold said. “Meeting Angeline again on her turf has been really incredible and seeing the sights of the book. Also, getting to meet some of the people who inspired her characters has really enriched my experience, not just as a reader, but also as her editor. I got to meet her cousin Friskey, who is an inspiration for certain characters. Getting on the Sugar Island Ferry for the first time was a really incredible experience for me.”
Payment rose next to announce how proud he was of his longtime acquaintance.
“I remember when she was first telling me about her vision,” said Payment. ‘I am like, “You have a good job. What are you doing?’ When she got her book deal and she posted it, it was around April Fools Day or something. I talked to her and was like, ‘Is this real? Is this true? Is this a joke?’ When she said that she was going to leave her job at the department of education, the top job in Indian education, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ She was like, ‘You’ve got to stop second guessing me.’ We are proud of the empowerment in the story, especially for young native women to be able to believe in themselves. This is the first full presentation that I have seen. It goes so far beyond the content of the book. It’s the inspiration of how to live your dream and believe in yourself to seek that. Our tribe and the whole community is just so proud of you.”
By the way, there will be a second book.