I was keen to listen to Boulley’s Warrior Girl Unearthed when I learned she won the 2022 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Novel. And I was intrigued to read a mystery focussed on Boulley’s Chippewa culture. And goodness knows, Boulley’s theme of returning Indigenous remains to their people struck uncomfortably close to home given the recent discoveries of mass graves in Canada’s former residential schools. (A horrible legacy Canada has yet to reckon with fully.) Boulley’s message becomes more important than ever. And it is a message couched in an engaging coming-of-age narrative, more nuanced than I thought it would be. First the blurb to help orient us:
Perry Firekeeper-Birch was ready for her Summer of Slack but instead, after a fender bender that was entirely not her fault, she’s stuck working to pay back her Auntie Daunis for repairs to the Jeep.
Thankfully she has the other outcasts of the summer program, Team Misfit Toys, and even her twin sister Pauline. Together they ace obstacle courses, plan vigils for missing women in the community, and make sure summer doesn’t feel so lost after all.
But when she attends a meeting at a local university, Perry learns about the “Warrior Girl”, an ancestor whose bones and knife are stored in the museum archives, and everything changes. Perry has to return Warrior Girl to her tribe. Determined to help, she learns all she can about NAGPRA, the federal law that allows tribes to request the return of ancestral remains and sacred items. The university has been using legal loopholes to hold onto Warrior Girl and twelve other Anishinaabe ancestors’ remains, and Perry and the Misfits won’t let it go on any longer.
Using all of their skills and resources, the Misfits realize a heist is the only way to bring back the stolen artifacts and remains for good. But there is more to this repatriation than meets the eye as more women disappear and Pauline’s perfectionism takes a turn for the worse. As secrets and mysteries unfurl, Perry and the Misfits must fight to find a way to make things right – for the ancestors and for their community.
While the blurb makes Boulley’s novel sound like an ensemble piece, it is Perry’s voice we stay with and Perry’s perspective that dominates every encounter, event, and revelation. And speaking of voice, I shall take a moment to praise the audiobook narrator, Isabella Star LaBlanc, whose smooth, engaging delivery kept me listening…even while I thought the novel was bloated and needed a dab editing hand. I don’t know that I would have had the patience to see it through to the end had I been reading a paper copy.
One aspect that I enjoyed was Perry’s journey from her “Summer of Slack” to maturity. Her confrontations with history, injustice present and past, and the urge to take action against both become a moral dilemma she had to work through. Perry discovers that reclaiming the past means healing the past, but it doesn’t redeem the present: one must be vigilant and active in the defense of Indigenous rights. Perry’s and her friends’ desire to return their ancestors to their tribe and give them the honours they did not receive is woven into the terrible present of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
What I appreciated in Perry’s journey was a portrayal of a family and community life that was made up of love, support, discipline, and expectations. She was not alone and she was not abandoned. She was rooted in family and community and this gave her strength and determination. Perry had to navigate right and wrong in taking action, confront the importance of making friends and family more important than a cause, and figure out how to take her place in the world. Boulley’s novel didn’t want to miss even one aspect of what it means to grow up Indigenous in this world right here, right now. A coming-of-age novel that is rich in Indigenous culture and voices, a tough, caustic, yet tender main character, and superb narration, that is the partnership between Boulley and LaBlanc.
I received the audiobook of Boulley’s Warrior Girl Unearthed from Macmillan Audio via Netgalley, which does not impede the free expression of my opinion.