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.