A Conversation with Marcie Rendon

with Jeff Berglund

Jeff Berglund: Your novel, Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos, 2017), is a mystery, a coming of age story, a tale of the strength and resilience of a young woman named Cash. It’s set in Fargo-Moorhead on the Red River that runs between North Dakota and Minnesota. It also meditates on the experience of dislocation and alienation for Cash who comes to act as an amateur (that is, unofficial) detective after a murder occurs. How did Cash’s story come to you and what about this setting, in particular, spoke to you and required or allowed you to explore such themes?

Marcie Rendon: The Red River Valley is on the western side of the White Earth Reservation, my home reservation. I spent a lot of my growing up years in the Valley and I think like every Native person, the land we grow up on speaks to and from us. I was writing a story about a young poet who becomes a country western singer. Cash appeared and took over the story.

JB: The narrative is set in the late 1960s. What did this time period afford you the opportunity to explore that 2017 might not have?

MR: Again, it is Cash’s story. I think that the time before cell phones and wifi allowed for the exploration of the relationships between people and also for the exploration of relationship of people to the land.

JB: Cash supports herself and works in a so-called “man’s world,” driving trucks and combines during wheat and sugar beet harvests. Can you speak about how the economic and financial aspects of Cash’s existence form an important context for knowing her and knowing her world?

MR: At that time in history, many Native women and men traveled back and forth between the reservations and the Valley doing seasonal farm labor work. It is also true that the foster care system at that time, which was wholesale removing Native children from their homes and placing them in white families on farms in northern Minnesota, was supplying “paid” free labor for farmers. Every foster child of that time has stories of working sunup to sundown on those farms and being moved constantly. The girls were usually used as “household help” and the boys as farmhands. In this story Cash became a farmhand.

JB: Cash is alone quite a bit and certainly doesn’t have a group of peers with similar backgrounds and economic status. She does have an unlikely ally and friend in Sheriff Wheaton who is white. What led you to develop these aspects of her character and their friendship (cross-racial, gender, age, etc.)?

MR: This is one of the wonders of writing fiction. Characters appear in the author’s mind and heart and they get to do what they want with who they want. I sat down and wrote the story; I did not sit down and plot out the story before writing so even as the author I wasn’t always sure where it was going or why things happened until it actually happened.

JB: Cash’s childhood experiences in the foster care system provide an important subconscious foundation for your development of her character. Why and how is she a different person because of those experiences? What are you hoping readers understand about its impact on children and Native children, in particular, as this novel was clearly set before the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978?

MR: Murder on the Red River speaks to the violence against young Native people in the foster care system. While my novel is set in 1969, Native children are still disproportionately displaced from their families and the level of violence directed at them has not significantly decreased according to all documentation.

Up until the mid-1960s, it was common practice for county and state social workers to scoop up Native children and remove them to white foster or adoptive homes. Sandy White Hawk, Director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, relates how on a national level 25-35% of Native children were taken and placed in non-Indian homes or institutions. In Minnesota, one in four were removed. White Earth and Red Lake reservations experienced higher removals. For each lost child, there is a set of grieving parents, siblings, grandparents, aunties, and uncles.

The ICWA was not in place during Cash’s childhood. While Murder on the Red River is a book of fiction, the story of removal, heartbreak, post-traumatic-stress symptoms and generational trauma Cash exhibits are all too true. What is equally true of so many survivors of that time is Cash’s resiliency in the face of such extreme early trauma.

JB: As in many good detective narratives, Cash is successful because of her keen observational skills and her ability to identify with the victim. I often say to my students that only the victim of a murder and the murderer truly know what happened, but the detective has to see and think like both in order to solve the crime. Can you describe the facets of Cash’s character that provide her the know-how to uncover some truths in the case?

MR: Growing up in abusive situations trains a person to be super aware and alert. Cash has those characteristics (except for when the danger is directly there and being directed at her — which is also common of survivors of trauma). Anyone who has studied PTSD or trauma survivance is familiar with this phenomenon. Cash also has intuitive abilities and she uses them.

JB: One of the important attributes that Cash brings to the case is her Anishinaabe heritage. The value of her heritage is inseparable from her entire personae, of course, but is foregrounded in the section of the novel when she returns to White Earth. Please share some of your decision-making process in terms of your representation of her tribal knowledge and connection to place (particularly as someone who was separated from her family and homeland as a young child).

MR: I don’t have an answer to this question. I write what I know. I don’t make “stuff” up; that’s the best answer I have this morning. And she was — as all Native people are, we are always, always — on her homeland. The Valley is Anishinaabe homeland. There is also the massive misconception that children can be removed from their family and not remember, not know who they are — child after child after child proves this wrong. I think of the recent movie Lion based on Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home: a Memoir.

JB: I know I’m not alone in these feelings: throughout the novel, I feared for Cash’s safety despite her strength and intelligence, and yearned for a happy ending for her. I felt the ending of Murder was both “earned” and, given her circumstances, realistic. That said, I can’t stop wondering about what’s next for Cash. Will you continue to write new chapters of her life?

MR: I am working as fast as I can between readings and signings hoping to answer some of the questions for folks. And just like the first book, I can honestly say I don’t exactly know ahead of time what Cash is up to.

JB: The poetry and the plays you have written have received acclaim. But this is your first published novel. How did you manage this shift in form? What are some of the major differences you’ve discovered along the way? What was it about Cash’s story, in particular, that called you to write a novel rather than explore her story in the context of theater?

MR: With theater, we are told to only write it for the stage if that is the only way the story can be told. This story was not a stage play. All I can really tell you is that this was never going to be a play and then there are other pieces that can only be a play because it is people and dialogue carrying the story and inviting the live audience along on the journey with them.

When writing for a live audience I am more aware that I have basically one chance to pull them into the story. With a written work, people can go back and re-read, or mull over a page — that cannot happen in theater and so I think for theater the writing of dialogue has to be the most compelling aspect to hold the audience attention but to also convey in some way all the back story and underlying emotion.

In some ways, lots of ways, I don’t know how to answer your “craft” question. I do not have an MFA and so there are some of the intricacies of writing craft that I just don’t know. My writing is very organic. I write, I love to write, I will write anything — any genre — because I love to write. Mark Anthony Rolo, Bad River Ojibwe author, says, “We get to make shit up — and as Indians, we couldn’t make some of this shit up.” You might have to be Indian to get the humor in that one.

about the author