Warrior Girl Unearthed is a gripping follow-up to Angeline Boulley’s much-lauded debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter. Here, we return to Sugar Island and meet the next generation of girls in the Firekeeper family.
High school student Perry had a glorious Summer of Slack all planned out, full of fishing, teasing her go-getter twin sister Pauline, and generally enjoying life. But then she accidentally wrecks her car, and to pay back her Auntie Daunis for the repairs, she has to take a job with one of the tribal-affiliated businesses in the Kinomaage Summer Internship Program. Perry is not amused to be assigned to the last remaining and least desirable internship role — working for Cooper Turtle, the odd manager of the Sugar Island Cultural Learning Centre.
At first, it seems like it’s going to be a tedious summer of cleaning museum display cases. But then her boss takes her to a meeting at Mackinac State College where he’s discussing the return of sacred and important cultural objects and the human remains of their ancestors that were stolen over the previous centuries and ended up in institutions. Perry is completely horrified by the revelation that her ancestors and their belongings are being treated like artifacts and denied their proper places of rest and respect. She is enraged by the labyrinthine laws and policies that allow institutions to delay their return indefinitely, not to mention private collectors who hoard things that they should never have had in the first place.
Propelled by her newfound passion for bringing her ancestors and their stolen possessions home, Perry digs into her internship with gusto. But when her sense of duty to her ancestors sings louder than her respect for rules and process, she begins to engage in activities that may get her into deeper trouble than she could have imagined. For Sugar Island has its monsters — Perry’s Auntie Daunis knows this all too well — and at least one of them is intent on stealing the lives of living Anishinaabe women as well as their dead. Perry will need the combined power of her family, her community, and her ancestors to bring justice to bear.
It’s clear from this sophomore novel that Boulley really knows how to construct a riveting, culturally focused thriller. Perry’s deep-dive into the injustice of colonialist institutions treating her ancestors’ remains as if they are things to be collected and catalogued rather than former people deserving of respect is compelling and current. The concept of the repatriation of objects that were stolen from their people is often in the news, and this book offers a very visceral view of what it might feel like to have your culture disrespected by the very people who claim to cherish history and culture. Perry herself, like her Auntie Daunis before her, is a formidable character who will not suffer fools and will not wait around for permission or salvation. Her sense of self, her faith in her family, and her dedication to her beliefs make her a pleasure to spend time with.
In terms of the twists and turns of the story, I found that this book was very much character-driven, with a lot of the conflict and danger stemming from Perry’s own decisions and actions. As the book reaches its climax, however, things begin to spin out of Perry’s control, and it did feel as though a few of the twists and reveals were born out of a pressure to make this somewhat quieter story reach the same levels of drama as Firekeeper’s Daughter. Perry’s internal journey would have been more than enough to carry me through.
I didn’t go into reading Warrior Girl Unearthed expecting its events to be tied as closely as they are to Firekeeper’s Daughter, and it was nice to settle back into the community and family that I had already grown to love in the previous book. Like a detective series where the place the detective lives becomes one of the familiar elements you expect in each new installment, Sugar Island clearly contains many stories, and I loved checking in with Daunis, Granny June, and all my other favorite characters while following Perry’s unique journey. Boulley has become a must-read author for me, and I hope we will continue to get more stories about the Firekeeper family and their home on Sugar Island.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.
This story originally appeared on NPR