The Next Chapter

Danielle Daniel draws on her ancestors' past in debut novel Daughters of the Deer

The Ontario writer's first adult novel, Daughters of the Deer, is historical fiction that imagines the lives of women in the Algonquin territories of the 1600s.
Sudbury-based writer Danielle Daniel is a novelist, award-winning children's book author and an illustrator. (Penguin Random House)

Danielle Daniel is a writer and illustrator of settler and Indigenous ancestry living in the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (Sudbury, Ont.).

Daniel's first novel for adults, Daughters of the Deer, imagines the lives of women in the Algonquin territories of the 1600s — a story inspired by her family's ancestral link to a young girl who was murdered by French settlers.

Her other books include The Dependent, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Northern Lit Award and the picture books Once in a Blue Moon and Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, which won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award and was a finalist for the Blue Spruce Award and First Nation Communities Read Awards. She also illustrated the 2018 Marilyn Baillie Award shortlisted picture book You Hold Me Up, written by Monique Gray Smith.

Daniel spoke to Shelagh Rogers about how stories from her ancestral past inspired her to write Daughters of the Deer.

Why was it such a long journey to write this book?

First of all, I had never written a novel before, so I had to learn how to write fiction. Number two, there was an immense amount of research and I had to get it right. It was really important to me because these people existed — they were a part of my ancestry. So it wasn't just a story about colonization, but it was also a story of my own ancestors. I knew I needed to take my time.

You talk in the acknowledgements about how it was a deeply sacred, but also excruciating experience writing this novel. Can you tell me about both aspects of that?

I'm a very empathetic person, so I feel things very deeply and unfortunately there's no separation for me when it comes to my work. I take it with me wherever I go. And the more research I did, the more that I learned, the more that I carried [the characters] along and their stories would never let me go — I would even dream about them when I wasn't writing. 

They went through many difficult things. And I had to put myself in those places, of course, to be able to bring the reader there as well. So those parts were quite difficult.

They went through many difficult things. And I had to put myself in those places, of course, to be able to bring the reader there as well.

As far as the sacred part, I feel that it's hard to explain to somebody — maybe writers would really understand this. Because you feel close to your characters when you create them, they feel real to you. But in this case, they weren't just characters. They were characters in the novel, but they were also real people in my ancestral line. So I developed an intimate relationship with them in a way. 

I feel just as close to them as I do to my grandmother, who lived 92 years and passed away last year. My grandmother never learned to read or write. She was looking forward to me reading the book to her. But I feel she's been with me too.

What did you do to imagine the day-to-day life of your character, Marie?

I was lucky enough to find some excellent research by feminist scholars on women's roles during the fur trade. So that was extremely helpful to me. I read so many books when digging for the smallest clue to help me along the way to try to flesh that out and bring it to life.

[Algonquin women] were responsible for so much of the work, and yet they got so little reward. And so I really just had to put myself in her body in a way, and imagine what it would be like to be a mother at that time.

Did you draw on your ancestor Jeanne to create your character of the same name?

I really did. Writing is such a magical process of deep listening and trusting the images, the words and dialogue that come to you. It's a strange thing, really, to listen to the voices in your head. [laughs] There were many times I didn't want to go where she was taking me. But in the end, I did. And I think the book is better for it.

Writing is such a magical process of really deep listening and trusting the images or the words that come to you.

What happened to the real Jeanne?

That is what led me to write this book. I remember talking with one of my aunts — I was really upset about what was going on with missing and murdered Indigenous women. And this was over 10 years ago now. She told me about Jeanne. She said that in our own ancestral line, we had a young girl who was murdered, who was one of the first missing and murdered Indigenous women. And that's what led me to dig further and learn more about her.

She was actually killed by French settlers. I was able to find through the archives, the records from her trial, the results of the trial and the witnesses that were there. I was able to find all the injustices that occurred. And that's what really upset me. I thought, 'I absolutely need to give Jeanne a voice.'

How do you see the relationship between the history that's in your novel and the present?

I'm hoping that's what the reader will really see clearly — how what happened even 350 years ago is directly linked to what's still happening today. The destruction of the land and the destruction of a culture, how the two are so closely related and how we're still dealing with the effects of colonization today.

I'm hoping that the readers — especially those who have had a hard time understanding the link and why we are still struggling today — will see it more clearly, because I'm zooming in on this one family and I'm taking you into their home and their hearts and minds. And I'm hoping that they can feel more empathy for the women who came before them. 

Danielle Daniel's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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