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Murder on the Red River

Los Angeles Review of Books
"Marcie Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, masterfully weaves two stories in a seamless, vivid narrative."
ERADICATION. ERASURE. The history of Native people in this country is, for the most part, poorly taught. Do you know the name of tribes that lived or roamed or currently live where you do now? Did you know that in our own state of California in 1850 the legislature allocated $1.5 million to fund the slaughter of Indians? Perhaps you’ve heard of the Indian boarding schools, essentially reeducation camps stripping Indigenous children of their language and their traditions and using coercive methods to create laborers. In the 20th century, Native children were removed from their homes at a rate 16 times higher than non-Native. By some estimates, nearly 25 to 35 percent of Indian families were removed and placed in non-Indian, non-tribal homes. Uprooted, isolated from their tribal affiliation and families, these children were often used as unpaid laborers. By the time Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 to stop this inhumane practice, it was too late to help people like Cash Blackbear, the teenage protagonist of Marcie R. Rendon’s Murder on the Red River.
Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, masterfully weaves two stories in a seamless, vivid narrative. The first is that of a dead Indian found stabbed in his chest without money or ID; the second is that of Cash’s life, and how she came to be a cue-stick-slinging farm hand, playing pool and sleeping with her married lover.
We meet the fiercely independent 19-year-old Cash Blackbear sometime in the early 1970s, three years after she has moved out on her own, fleeing a childhood spent in a series of foster homes. Cash’s world along the Red River, in rural North Dakota and Minnesota, is filled with the scent of wheat on her clothing, chaff in the creases of her work boots, daily casual racism, and the backdrop of body bags returning from Vietnam. We are swiftly absorbed in this immersive experience. We catch painfully brief glimpses into her family life pre-removal, pointedly different from her experience in the farmers’ homes: “At their mom’s, they always had something to eat […] They all slept curled in one big bed, kept warm by a kerosene stove in the winter months. There was always laughter. No swatting, no shaming.”
Cash, hard-drinking, hard smoking, petite, and powerful, carries with her in equal parts the weight of deep loss and the freedom of giving no fucks. Early on she knew she had no place in the sun-bleached world of white women, and allied herself to men’s work and men’s fashion: “Cash learned to be watchful. Wary. Not to make too much noise or sudden moves. Do the dishes and sweep the floors when told. She learned these women believed that cleanliness was next to godliness and that her permanently tanned skin was a mark of someone’s sin.”
Cash hustles pool to drink free beers, plays tournament pool with her lover Jim to pay the rent. As we grow to know this petite teenager, we realize how many layers of self-protection surround her, and how much want has built each wall. From stints in meager, miserly, racist foster homes (“All the foster kids are Indian,” she and another child realize) to the pervasive daily acts of racism (“There wasn’t a name Cash hadn’t been called: squaw, whore, stupid, heathen. She had heard them all”) that her lover wants her to minimize, to the frankly bleak and monotonous future ahead of her. Long days of farm work, evenings of alcohol and sex, early mornings of hangovers and coffee, repeat.
Everything in her world shifts when she meets up with Sheriff Wheaton and inspects the body of the Red Lake victim. Wheaton is her sole friend in this community, a laconic, caring sheriff, part mentor, part guardian. She’s known him since she was three, when he retrieved her and her family from their car in a ditch. In the intervening years, he’s kept his eye out for her, with occasional kindnesses, like the gift of a secondhand bike or a firm sit-down with a thoughtless foster father.
Wheaton is hoping for her help, since, he explains, the Red Lake people don’t tend to talk to white investigators. Cash agrees. After Wheaton’s team takes the body away, Cash remains. She wraps herself in a blanket and lays down in the bed of her truck:
Her body floating up and out of the truck bed and following the trail of a soul gone northeast to say good-bye to loved ones. She saw a gravel road with a stand, almost like a foodstand where on would sell berries, but this one had a basket of pinecones on it. Children, five or six of them, crowded ‘round the stand.
By following this vision, she finds the family of the deceased father of seven.
As an ardent fan of mystery novels, and their skeptical, investigative approach to analysis and deduction, I am wary of mystical devices which lead protagonists to short cuts. Cash apparently has the power of, if not exactly astral projection, leaving her body and following traces of souls to places that they are connected to. It’s not a device I’m keen on, but Rendon’s voice and storytelling abilities pulled me along, willingly. Back in her own shell of a body, and following the images she has just seen, Cash drives to the doorstep of this man’s family.
Finding the family of the murder victim creates an emotional connection in Cash that she is uncomfortable with and unprepared for. Will she make good on the promises she whispers to the young girl, watching her now-widowed mother drink and drink? Or will Cash, too, be the bearer of empty promises?
Since Wheaton and Cash presume the victim was murdered for his farm wages, Cash slinks around, drinking sullenly at a few bars, eavesdropping on a group of men who eye her suspiciously. She makes herself scarce, and later trails them. She hears talk of murder, and finds herself inextricably embedded in the investigation.
As we accompany Cash in her sleuthing, Rendon’s understated style captures the time period and sweeps the reader along. Rendon also clearly and compellingly evokes the rural: “She loved the vast expanse of farmland in either direction. Fields of wheat or oats stood waiting to be combined. Potatoes still in the ground. Hay feed plowed under, straight black furrows from one end of a field to another, the Red River tree line a green snake heading north.” In unobtrusive asides, she documents as well the quiet dignity of work and soft-spoken Ojibwe laborers and the impact of racism on her protagonist.
Less a traditional mystery and more an evocation of a world not so far away or long ago, with relevance to our own history and shallow memories, Murder on the Red River touches briefly on Indian boarding schools, the seizing of native children and placing them as laborers in foster homes. We enter Cash’s skin, feel her stoic ferocity in the face of the life handed to her, the boundaries imposed from without and from within, and hope that somehow she will break free. What does it mean to be who she is — defined by her otherness, separated from those much like herself? She carries the weight of a missing heritage, missing family members, like missing limbs; she appears forever hollowed out by her profound loss.
As we near the book’s ending and the stakes rise for Cash, we realize we don’t want her to merely survive. We want her to take on the world and win.

- August 14, 2017  Visit Website
Kirkus Reviews
"A coming of age story."
A wild child uneasily transplanted from the White Earth Reservation to a rented house in Fargo meets murder.Though she needs a bogus ID to get served at the bars where she shoots a mean game of pool, Cash, nee Renee Blackbear, 19, already has a lot of miles on her. Taken away from the rez as a child, she's been in and out of more foster homes than she can remember; she's been smoking and drinking since she was 11; and she doesn't mind the fact that her latest lover, farmer Jim Jenson, is married. But even Cash has never seen a murdered man before the August day in 1970 when she follows a radio announcement about a dead body to the Minnesota side of the Red River, where she finds her long-suffering guardian, Sheriff Wheaton, standing over the corpse of a stabbing victim presumed to have come from the Red Lake Reservation. Wheaton has no jurisdiction over a federal reservation, but that doesn't stop Cash, driven by another of the vivid waking dreams she's known for, from driving her Ranchero the 100-plus miles to Red Lake to ask Josie Day Dodge where her husband is. The dead man is indeed Josie Day's husband, nicknamed Tony O for baseball skills that rival those of Twins star Tony Oliva, and another vision brings Cash perilously close to the three men who killed him. The plot in Rendon's adult debut never exactly thickens—this is more coming-of-age story than mystery—but the spare prose-poetry of her descriptions and dialogue is a lot more interesting than anything she has to say about crime or detection.
- February 1, 2017  Visit Website
Publishers Weekly
"Feisty, sensitive, and smart."
An appealing 19-year-old heroine, Renee “Cash” Blackbear, lifts Rendon’s first mystery, set in Fargo, N.Dak., and — on the other side of the Red River — Moorhead, Minn. Sheriff Wheaton rescued Cash at age three in the aftermath of the accident in which her drunken mother rolled the family car containing Cash and her brother and sister. Lawfully separated from her family in what she considers a kidnapping, Cash grew up in a series of foster homes. Feisty, sensitive, and smart, Cash is now a farm laborer and a pool shark, and her only real friend is Wheaton. When she hears a radio announcer say one morning that Wheaton has found a body in a field on the Minnesota side of the river, she drives to the crime scene. There Wheaton enlists her aid in investigating the stabbing death of Day Dodge, a native worker from the Red Lake Reservation. Mystery readers should know that Rendon, the author of Pow Wow Summer and other children’s books, focuses more on the abuses Native Americans suffer than on the efforts to solve Dodge’s brutal murder.
- January 27, 2017  Visit Website
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"This accomplished author has clearly undertaken more than a murder story … she finds new depth and an ample storytelling platform for her informed views on the historic persecution of Indians."
In her debut mystery novel, Marcie R. Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, casts us into the stark world of Cash, a pool-playing, Bud-swilling, Marlboro-smoking wisp of a thing. Cash has dark braids down to her butt and an aloof, independent air that plays well in the bars but doesn’t help her future.

She lives in Fargo, Siamese twin to Minnesota’s Moorhead, two towns drawing their life blood from the Red River. The agricultural heartland and the rugged nature of the people who work it both play deeply into the story of this White Earth Anishinabe orphan. Cash’s best friend and guardian is Sheriff Wheaton, a stout lawman of Scandinavian stock who pulled her out of a car crash that killed her mother when Cash was just 3. As Cash grows up, Wheaton learns that there’s more depth to Cash than her spartan words and don’t-mess-with-me manner might suggest.

Young Cash was thrust into the foster system, a rough-and-tumble series of strict and uncaring families that eschewed her culture and put her to work as a housekeeper and farm laborer. Now 19, she has left those unhappy memories behind and is “driving truck” for the grain and beet farmers around Fargo.

With barely enough to pay the rent, Cash picks up money shooting pool at watering holes and honky-tonks. She sees her life as “a living, breathing country western song.” A reader’s early impression is that this is a stereotypical, off-the-reservation girl who has had her culture stamped out of her and wanders aimlessly from one hard knock to the next.

But Sheriff Wheaton is right that there’s more to Cash. This girl sees things. Visions about people or places that she cannot possibly know. Dreams that haunt her with importance but leave her searching for their meaning. One day she shows up at a murder scene after a body is found in a wheat field, and a vivid picture of the dead man’s home on the Red Lake Reservation storms into her head. She gets pulled into the investigation and finds herself in a confrontation that requires all her ingenuity just to get out alive.

Along the way we meet two colorful characters: Jim (her married pool partner and sometimes lover) and Long Braids (now this is heading somewhere), on his way to Minneapolis to be an activist.

This accomplished author has clearly undertaken more than a murder story. Rendon uses the novel as a vehicle for shameful reminders, political and cultural lessons about the devastation that American policies have rained on Indian families and children.

Rendon has drawn numerous accolades for previous works that include a children’s book, “Pow Wow Summer.” But in this, her first mystery, she finds new depth and an ample storytelling platform for her informed views on the historic persecution of Indians.
- March 10, 2017  Visit Website
Twin Cities Pioneer Press
"[Marcie] Rendon delves deep into the history of Native American communities and the danger of forcing assimilation on a community outside the mainstream of American cultural norms."
The author, an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation and a Minnesota Book Award finalist, makes her mystery debut. The novel’s protagonist, Cash, is an orphan born into a White Earth Anishinabe family but raised mostly by herself and the child welfare system. She has a way of “knowing,” seeing events she is not present at unfold in her mind. Rendon delves deep into the history of Native American communities and the danger of forcing assimilation on a community outside the mainstream of American cultural norms.

- February 23, 2017  Visit Website
Jeff Berglund, Ph.D., Director of Liberal Studies, Northern Arizona University
“Marcie Rendon’s portrait of a Native woman detective is vibrant and rooted in the complexities of history and a place haunted by a violent past that refuses to loosen its grip.”

Lisa Sandlin, The Do-Right, winner of the Dashiell Hammet award
“Marcie Rendon’s debut, Murder on Red River, features the magnetic Cash: aged-out foster child, girl pool shark, truck driver from Minnesota’s White Earth reservation. When a native man from nearby Red Lake is knifed, her cop friend Wheaton, a Longmire-type, enlists her help. Cash’s search takes her through her own hardscrabble memories of family and land sorrowfully lost—a journey that Rendon writes of with flat-out authority.”

Debbie Reese
“Cash. That’s what most people call the 19-year-old Chippewa woman Renee Blackbear in Rendon’s searing, soaring, and ultimately unflinching story of how Native people persevere in the face of policies and people that seek to destroy the essence of who they are.” 

David Beaulieu, Ph.D., Professor of American Indian Education, University of Minnesota, Duluth. Enrolled White Earth Ojibwe
“Cash’s life experiences emerge as both landscape and resource to an investigation that engages the reader to the end.”

Gwen Danfelt, Drury Lane Books
“What kept me reading was getting to know Cash under her tough exterior, watching her come to terms with her harrowing, unjust past in white foster homes and fight to stop the next generation of Indian kids from suffering the same fate. Rendon’s descriptions capture the rural layout of the Midwest in the 1970’s, expanses of farms and nothingness between small towns populated with churches and bars, and the persistent smell of wheat and earth. Not so much has changed in rural culture today.”
Kathryn Swanson, Augsburg College
"This first novel by Marcie Rendon is remarkable."
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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