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.
Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.
Murder on the Red River
By: Marcie R. Rendon.
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press, 202 pages, $15.95.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. March 19, Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, Mpls.; 7:30 p.m. March 31, Banfill Locke Center for the Arts, Fridley; 7 p.m. April 20, Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls.