Book Review: Murder on the Red River

I’m trying to remember how this book, Murder on the Red River by Marcie R. Rendon even landed on my shelf. I’m thinking that it must have been a Minnesota Public Radio email — perhaps a book newsletter from Kerri Miller. However it was that I found the title, I’m confident I went to Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books to order it.

Because to find an indie press book (and especially in this time of no bookstore and library browsing) feels like stumbling across a needle in a haystack or, as in this case, a gem in a haystack, when I wasn’t even necessarily looking for one.

Murder on the Red River is set in the Minnesota-North Dakota Fargo Moorhead border area along the titular river during the Vietnam War and centers around a wise-beyond 19 year old Cash Blackbear. Cash grew up on the White Earth Reservation before being shuffled between a series of foster homes. The consistent adult in her life has been Wheaton, the county sheriff, and so it is that Cash (who otherwise mostly drives trucks on local farms and shoots pool at the local bars) ends up at the scene of the murder of a man from Red Earth, another, more remote reservation. Cash is both earthly and not and uses her otherworldliness to gain insights into the crime and more importantly the victim and his loved ones.

My husband grew up south and east from where this book takes place. (The opening descriptions of the landscape in Murder on the Red River mirrored his geological narration of our drives out to his hometown.) As a coastal, city kid, driving out into this flat, flat black earth with its sky so open I could almost see the curve of the horizon, it was an unfamiliar, almost scary feeling of isolation. Of course, Cash is tethered to this place by birth and 19 years and by family and people (however few) in a way that I wasn’t. Rendon’s prose feels similarly and simultaneously open and sparse. As such, she drives both plot, meaning, and exposition into seemingly singular objects (Cash’s prized pair of boots, which she found on a farm, her newly installed phone), memories (sleeping on the bench in the police station) and rhythms of life (her morning coffee, the thwack, thwack of the pool table). A few pages in and I was already felt in my bones that Cash was a real person.

While a good book is a good book, I happened to read this particular one during a pandemic and, as such, was attuned to the ways in which Cash’s story felt like it mirrored my own in isolation. Absent many of the normal outside distractions, everyday items and moments and relationships have taken on new meanings and been the objects of further study and fascination in this pandemic. It’s been an opportunity to drill down into more substantial ways of being and seeing, like Rendon’s prose.

Books, of course, have always been a way to connect but it’s felt more profoundly necessary as of late. Murder on the Red River took me into a world that was familiar and relateable in some ways (Cash’s waist length hair is considered a few times through the story and mine has grown nearly as long in the pandemic) and yet from a completely new (to me) point of view. I was somewhat familiar with the landscape of this part of this country but it was primarily from the perspective of the Scandinavian farmers and college students. I had not considered what life near and around the Red River might be like for indigenous people like Cash. I ordered the next Cash Blackbear book even before I finished this one.

One line of poetry (her own, I think) runs through Cash’s mind at different moments in the book: “Sun-drenched wheat fields, healing rays of God’s love wash gently over me.” It calls to my mind Malachi (3:19-20) “for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Like these lines, Murder on the Red River is a deeply satisfying work.

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