The star of Marcie Rendon’s Murder on the Red River is Renee Blackbear, who goes by the nickname Cash. She’s nineteen years old and a survivor of numerous foster homes — one of the many Native children removed from their homes and placed with white foster parents. When Cash was three, her mother lost her parental rights after rolling her car with her three kids in it; Cash hasn’t seen her mother or her brother or sister since. The local sheriff, Wheaton, looks out for her, and in fact saved her from her last abusive foster home by signing off so she could get an apartment on her own. Cash lives in Fargo, North Dakota and drives beet truck for a living. She’s an amateur pool shark in the evening — makes enough to keep her in free beers at the Casbah where she teams up (there and back at her apartment) with a married guy. The novel is set in the 1970’s during the Vietnam War era – the nightly news playing in the background at the Casbah reports the daily body count.
When a local Native guy is murdered, Wheaton enlists Cash’s help to solve the crime. Cash has waking dreams; she can travel outside of her body to see the past or future. At first, the information doesn’t make sense to her, but as things unfold, she can see where it fits into the big picture.
“Soon she was lost in time, 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 food stand where one would sell berries, but this one had a basket of pinecones on it. Birchbark baskets were filled with pinecones. Children, five or six of them, crowded ’round the stand.”
Cash is tough — she favors Marlboros and Budweisers — and carries a sleeping bag and a rifle in her pick up truck. She’s learned how to take care of herself the hard way. Wheaton wants her to go to college — she’s smart and there is funding available — but Cash has never trusted the establishment.
Though there is the mystery of the Native man to solve in Murder on the Red River — the mystery is not at the center of the novel — Cash is. Cash is a character that will stick with you, she’s tough, but vulnerable. Even though she can, you don’t want her to have to always take care of herself. You’ll worry about her drinking and smoking and wish you could sidle up next to her in a booth at the Casbah and give her a little advice, or buy her a meal, or introduce her to a nice, stable, single guy.
Rendon has nailed the setting — the smell of the sugar beet factories in the Red River Valley, the mud and the truck tracks from load after load of sugar beets being hauled out of the fields, the wide open vistas, the dive bars, and the diners that serve up roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy.
In the author notes, Rendon writes about the historical trauma of Native people. “From 1819 to 1934, Native children were systematically removed form families and put into boarding schools . . . they grew up like prisoners of war, punished for speaking their languages, punished for talking to their siblings if they crossed paths.” In the 1960’s 25-35% of Native children were taken from their families and placed in non-Indian homes or institutions. White Earth and Red Lake reservations experienced even higher removals. Finally, in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed; it set federal requirements for state child custody proceedings for Indian children who were a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe. The Act required state welfare agencies to work in the best interest of the child to place the child with a family member or extended family member of the tribe.
One wonders, how Cash’s story – and countless real life children’s stories — would have unfolded if the Act had been in place? Though fiction, Cash’s story is one to follow — her resilience and tenacity give this reader confidence that she will be a force for good. Fortunately, Rendon has already published the second in the Cash Blackbear series: Girl Gone Missing. I know what I’ll be reading next.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interview with Marcie Rendon on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais on January 23 at 7:00 pm and online at http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog.