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Local author earns national Pinckley Prize for debut novel

Posted on 27 August 2018 by calvin

Standish resident Marcie R. Rendon won the 2018 Pinckley Prize for Crime Fiction for her debut novel “Murder on the Red River” (Cinco Puntos Press). Her book was also a finalist in the Western Writers of America 2018 Spur Awards in the Best Western Contemporary Novel category.

Photo right: Marcie R. Rendon (Photo by Rebecca McDonald)

On being recognized in two distinct genres, Rendon said simply: “Wow. Wow! I’m happy, you know?” An enrolled member of the White Earth Nation who has lived in the Twin Cities for more than 30 years, Rendon also notes what the awards aren’t: Native American.

“Often our work gets categorized into a Native American category, and neither of these awards is a Native American award.” Not that she wouldn’t also welcome that. But she’s glad her novel “moves outside of a certain box.”

The story follows Renee (“Cash”) Blackbear, a Native American woman entering adulthood after a traumatic childhood, and her longtime friend Sheriff Wheaton, as they work together to solve a murder that takes place along the Red River. More a refined character portrait than a bracing whodunnit, the story moves quietly and deliberately across the Red River Valley—in Minnesota and North Dakota, on and off the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

Rendon paints a landscape both raw and familiar and sketches a protagonist to match. You can see the fields of wheat stubble and dirt caked on the soles of boots, smell the inside of the bar and hear the crack of pool balls on the break. Cash, in turn, is tough as nails, resourceful, edgy and funny.

She’s also a different character altogether than the one Rendon started writing about.

Rendon has been writing her whole life, deciding in 1990-91 to make her living as a writer doing “anything that pays.” This has included journalism, children’s books (she wrote “Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life”), plays, and poetry.

A fan of Stephen King, Rendon enjoys reading crime fiction. She started writing a couple of crime novels herself but shelved them and instead set about writing the story of a woman who writes poetry, goes to Nashville and writes country music.

But instead, in came Cash, this no-nonsense character who demanded her story be told.

“Cash appeared, and it was like ‘No, no no no, that’s not the story we’re doing,’” said Rendon. It was a struggle at first, but once she started writing it just flowed. “This was the story that was there to be told.”

Cash is a product of the foster care system, a part of her life the author presents as not something extraordinary, just blunt fact. In writing her story, Rendon didn’t set out to educate people (“I intended to write a murder mystery that anyone could enjoy”), but here it was: Cash’s experience, so commonplace for Native Americans but foreign to most Minnesotans.

“So many people don’t know this history of the taking of native children,” she said, referring to the government practice early last century of sending Native children away to boarding schools and then during the 1950s and ‘60s of adopting kids out to white families.

As described in her Author’s Note in the novel’s end pages, one in four Native children were taken from their families and placed in non-Indian homes or institutions (the percentages were higher on the White Earth and Red Lake reservations) before the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act mandated that welfare agencies work to place Indian children with their biological family first, or an extended family of the tribe.

“When you meet native people, everybody has a story about social workers and foster care,” said Rendon, who lived in the Red River Valley and White Earth area until she was 24 or 25 years old. “I was just writing a part of life… much in the same way that someone who grew up in the Bayou in Louisiana would write about it.”

Representation is important to Rendon. An avid reader when she was growing up, she could never find any books about Native American people like her. It was all Plains Indians and Edward S. Curtis photographs and cowboys and Indians.

“I wanted pictures and stories about who we are now,” said Rendon. “As an artist, writer, who does plays, poetry, now novels, I wanted other Native people to see themselves.”

Her children’s book “Powwow Summer” shows a contemporary family going to a contemporary powwow: people in cars, a mom in shorts putting her child in dance regalia, and going to the powwow.

“I want to be able to do that for us. I think it’s important not just for Native people but for everybody in this diverse world,” she said. “It’s hard to know the value of your existence when you have no picture of yourself. I want to be able to give people that, [the sense that] they do matter, they do exist, that their pictures and lives are just as important and valuable as anyone else’s.”

Rendon also gives voice to others through the Women’s Writing Project, a COMPAS program in which she and fellow writer/poet Diego Vázquez Jr. teach women in county jails to write. Participants write poetry and read it aloud to each other. Their work is published in a book, and the writers do spoken word reading to other women in jail. It builds confidence and gives them an opportunity to get up and say, “What I have to say is important.”

Rendon sees injustice within the criminal justice system, where for some of the women the only reason they’re in jail is that they haven’t been able to make bail. They’re in for minor offenses, but they don’t have bail money, so their children are either with family or in foster care. The writing becomes a positive outlet.

“Diego and myself, we’re using this writing so that women have some idea that there’s some other thing that they do, that art as itself—whether as writing or visual art or dance or creating videos, hair styling, sewing—all those things are healing,” said Rendon. “The more you can put your energy into creating, your brain doesn’t drift over into the noncreative things you can be doing with your time.”

You can hear more from Rendon as she joins other panelists at PEN America’s “BreakOut: Voices From the Inside” at the Weisman Art Museum on Sun., Sept. 9, 12-4pm. The program is free and open to the public.

Rendon is also bringing Cash and Wheaton back in a second crime book by the same publisher in April 2019.

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