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Murder on the Red River

Kathryn Swanson, Augsburg College

This first novel by Marcie Rendon is remarkable for several reasons. It is set in rural Northern Minnesota in the 1970s and features nineteen-year-old Cash, a Native Anishinabe woman who is resilient, very bright, and empathetic to children on the reservation who remind her of her own situation as a child. Taken by social workers and placed in one foster home after another, Cash learned to work hard and to keep her head down (both literally and figuratively). She has a mentor, a police officer who gave her a place to sleep in the jail when she was three and her drunken mother crashed the car Cash and her siblings were riding in. He has watched out for Cash ever since then, serving as a guardian of sorts and being the only person about whom Cash admits she would feel sad if he were dead. A young Native man is found stabbed early in the novel and his murder and some inexplicable dreams Cash experiences cause her to find his wife and children on the reservation. Distraught, the mother dies soon after Cash’s visit and Cash returns to check on the children and to try to protect them from the social workers who, she believes, will separate the children and get them into the system that Cash experienced as a child. Skilled at billiards, Cash earns a meager living playing for beer and money and driving trucks and doing day labor for local farmers. Her nightly billiard work gives her entree into bars along the Red River near Fargo, North Dakota where she overhears details of the murder. A second murder occurs; Cash stalks and escapes from the perpetrators but her information enables local police to solve the case.
As is Cash, this novel is filled with subdued anger at the treatment Native people have endured, sadness at the way children were taken from their families, despair at the social system that enabled the foster system to abuse these children, and yet a glorification of strength and resilience of the people of Red Lake and the White Earth reservations. Rendon captures the story and the background with a calm, measured, and understated tone that serves to underscore the points she is making via the murder case.

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