Review by Deborah Locke
After reading Marcie Rendon’s newest novel, Sinister Graves, for a few hours of during which time stood still, I noticed that I only had about 50 pages left. That was disappointing. I did not want the book to end so soon.
Rendon, a White Earth Nation enrollee, wrote the third book in her mystery series about the 19-year-old combination college student and sleuth, which is set in Minnesota’s Red River Valley. Cash is also a topflight pool shark who finds herself as a lead investigator following the murders of two American Indian women. A ring of truth neatly knits the story together. Rendon does this with her creation of believable characters you grow to care about, through events, and even through the intricate travel depicting Minnesota and North Dakota’s geography. Central to the story is its geography following a destructive flood, and the abominable reality about the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women in the U.S. The book is set in the 1970s, but the violence against women on reservations is every bit as real today.
Nature deals its own violent hand in the book. Receding floodwaters make travel impossible at times, but you get the feeling that Cash and her contemporaries can outride anything nature delivers. Fishtailing vehicles on washed-out roads are the least of their worries. Of greater concern is the identification of a young Indian woman who is found dead in the floodwater.
Cash’s former guardian and trusted friend, Dave Wheaton, is also the local county sheriff. Wheaton is aware of Cash’s intelligence and talent, helped her enroll in college, and hired her as a part-time assistant to help with White Earth Reservation cases. He asks Cash to learn the name of the Ojibwe woman who died. While in the process of discovering that name, Cash becomes acquainted with members of an evangelical church on a reservation, and their worship. Cash befriends the pastor and his wife, all the while suspicious of two small graves just outside the church. A threatening and creepy mysticism as well as mind reading and out-of-body experiences play a role in this book, but each feel like they fit. Rendon has a way of seamlessly building a narrative so the supernatural feels, well, natural. Even imperative.
Questions without answers about the graves push the plot to a surprise ending.
Meanwhile, along the way, readers gain more insight into what makes Renee “Cash” Blackbear tick. We know from the two earlier books that Cash had a hard start in life as a foster child. “Sinister Graves” shows the way Cash was beaten and verbally abused, and as a result, she grew insular and distrustful. At one point, Cash wonders for the first time what it would be like to own a home, a place where no one could force you to move. (Perhaps this mention means that Cash will buy a home in a later novel.)
In “Sinister Graves” she still drinks too much beer and smokes cigarettes incessantly. In fact, Cash spends far more time seeking out beer joints and cigarette machines than any other place or commodity. At one point, she blacks out after a night of drinking which leads to a brief moment of self-reflection. Her longest running relationship is with a married man. Cash is the universal troubled kid sister you want to simultaneously hug and lock up. You love her but know she is going to get hurt, and all you can do is watch.
I mentioned the way realism rolls through Rendon’s books. “Sinister Graves” is set in the 1970s when gas was around 30 or 35 cents a gallon. Cash buys cigarettes from machines for thirty cents a pack. Reference is made to the Billy Jack character from the movie of the same name. Restaurant meals include red meat, white bread and little mention of vegetables or fruit. A household phone rings from one location only; there is no answering machine. Televisions have three stations. “Marcus Welby M.D.” is a popular television show. It is the small details like these that add flesh to the moving plot. Of these, Rendon is a master.
In fact, as a storyteller in general, Rendon is masterful. She is straightforward in her writing and plot building, avoids hyperbole, and makes you care about her characters. The violence she described in “Sinister Graves” is not gratuitous. Instead, through her superhero, Cash, Rendon shines a light on the actual epidemic of violence against American Indian women in the U.S.