Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (Henry Holt, Inc., 2021)
This novel is a masterpiece. . .
Though loved by both sides of her family, 18 year old Daunis Fontaine has never felt like she fit in with either her mother’s white Fontaine side or her father’s Ojibwe Firekeeper side. She’s looked forward to leaving her small town of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula for U of M where she plans to pursue medical school. But when Daunis’s uncle tragically dies and her grandmother has a stroke, she decides to stay close for the first year and study at the local Lake State to help her mother.
One bright spot in a this whirlwind of tragedy is that she agrees to her brother’s request to be an ambassador to the local Junior A hockey team’s handsome and kind new recruit, Jamie. But as she gets to know him, Daunis senses that Jamie is hiding something. Meanwhile, local Indian girls go missing, highlighting a tragedy that is all too often overlooked in the neat, white world. When Daunis witnesses a brutal murder and then discovers a body of a missing girl, Daunis finds herself involved in a secret FBI investigation regarding a lethal new strain of Meth that’s infiltrated Indian reservations across the upper Midwest.
With a foot uniquely placed in two worlds and a bright, scientifically-oriented mind, Daunis agrees to help the undercover mission. But as she uncovers the truth, she finds that secrets run deep among the town and the people she thought she knew so well. Can Daunis be strong enough—and wise enough—to know what to do with the truth she discovers?
This book has it all. It’s a thriller that will have you furiously turning the pages. It’s an exploration of modern Native culture. It’s a history of a land and the tensions between the people who inhabit it. It’s a coming-of-age identity story. And it has sports! And science! And romance! And it’s all wrapped up in prose that is brimming with voice and oozing with beauty and complexity. This is Boulley’s debut novel, and I read that it took her ten years to write. I am so thankful that she did not rush the process, because what she’s delivered is beautifully layered and compelling. In short, perfection.
There is so much that could be mined from this book in terms of writing craft, but the gem I want to focus on is how well Boulley uses her secondary characters to serve her story. For this post, I will focus on Jamie.
As mentioned in the story summary, Jamie is new to town, and Daunis has been assigned by the local Junior A hockey team, the Supes, to be his ambassador—to show him around and help him feel welcome. Being an outsider means he has lots of questions. Questions the reader probably has, as well. Throughout the book, Jaime’s questions for Daunis, and her explanations, relay necessary story information that the reader needs in an organic and seamless way. Their interactions are a wonderful example of how secondary characters can be used to expand the reader’s understanding of the story.
- Establish the setting:
Northern Michigan, particularly the UP, is sparsely populated and is difficult to get to (I know, I grew up and still spend several weeks a year in Upper Michigan just south of the Mackinaw Bridge.) Knowing that her readers will need an understanding for the town and the way of life there, Boulley creatively has Daunis give Jaime a tour of her town:
“Over there, a few miles away, is Lake Superior.” I point west before following the river. “It feeds the St. Mary’s River, which is the international border with Canada. The city on the other side is also called Sault Sainte Marie, but it’s a lot bigger than our town. . . The river curves around the east end of town, and those pretty hills are part of Sugar Island. That’s where my dad’s family is from. . .” (46, 47)
- Illuminate history and story themes
(Daunis:) “…There used to be rapids here. It was a major gathering spot for Anishinaabeg, with fishing villages on both sides of the river and on Sugar Island. The government took over the area and cut through the rapids to build the Soo Locks, which work like a water elevator to raise or lower the ships.
Jamie’s eyes are on me instead of the freighter across the street. “What happened to all the Anishinaabeg people and their villages?”
I raise an eyebrow. I’m not sure if Jamie knows what a big question he’s asked. (47)
- World Building: (Note: world building is not just for speculative fiction and historical fiction!):
Note that world building is not just for speculative fiction and historical fiction. All stories have a story world, and it’s important to never assume your reader understands the culture of your story world. Boulley clearly understands that her reader is going to need some education to understand Daunis’s world. She uses Jamie to:
Create cultural context:
“Oh, one more question. When people say Anishinaabe, do they mean Native or Ojibwe?”
“Anishinaabe means the Original People. Indigenous. Nish. Nishnaab. Shinaab. Mostly we’re referring to Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi tribes from the Great Lakes area. Ojibwe language is called Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwemowin.” (48)
Observe culture in action:
(Jamie): “I’ve never been to a powwow. Are you going tomorrow? Can you show me around?”
“Sure,” I say, surprised at his eagerness. I remind myself that he hasn’t grown up around his tribe like I have. “How about an ambassador-guided powwow experience?” (53)
(Reader): Yes, please!
- Illuminate the protagonist character and provide backstory:
Secondary characters are a great tool to use when you need to dive into backstory and want to avoid an expository info dump or a flashback. Conversations like these are also a great way to show your protagonist’s feelings about their history, rather than tell:
“Can I ask what happened?” Jamie asks. “With your dad, I mean.”
I blink in surprise that Levi hasn’t filled him in yet. . . .
I’m not sure why I’m telling him this. Maybe because I get to be the one to tell him, rather than someone filling him in with juicy gossip. (61)
***BOOBY TRAP ALERT***
All of these examples occur in dialogue, mainly because these quotes were easy to pull and didn’t give away any spoilers. However, unnatural and forced dialogue is painful to read and can be just as deadly to your story as expository info dumping. Make sure that all conversations arise naturally and are rooted in character.
Still, if you’re having trouble establishing your setting, creating your world, or have important history or backstory you need to relay without the use of flashbacks, secondary characters can be one of your greatest assets!