Book Review: Sinister Graves by Marcie R. Rendon

Marcie R. Rendon's Sinister Graves follows Cash Blackbear, a young Ojibwe woman, as she attempts to discover the truth about the disappearances of Native girls and their newborns on the White Earth Reservation in 1970s Minnesota. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

When floodwaters sweep through Minnesota’s Red River Valley, Cash Blackbear is mostly worried about how they’ll affect her ability to pick up work on the now-waterlogged local farmsteads. The college classes that her mentor, County Sheriff Wheaton, insists she take don’t fill up enough of her time. Neither do her ace pool-shooting abilities, nor her drinking and occasional night of mild rural carousing. 

So she’s definitely up for the task when Wheaton calls, asking for her help with a body that was swept down into town with the floods. The dead woman is obviously Native American, with a strong resemblance to Cash herself, leading her to believe that the woman, like her, is from the nearby White Earth Reservation. Mysteriously, the woman hadn’t drowned but had been knocked unconscious before being smothered to death. Tucked into her bra was a page from a hymnal, written in both English and Ojibwe.

Most disturbingly for Cash, however, is the presence of a strange dark shadow hovering in the corner of the morgue when she and Wheaton go to see the body for themselves:

Cash knew that she herself had a sixth sense, a word she had learned from library books. The knowledge helped her come to terms with the fact that, sometimes, she knew things, like the Johnson barn was going to catch fire, or that her foster sister was pregnant before anyone else knew. Wheaton knew she knew things. Which is why he had her help him out sometimes. She didn’t think he understood exactly how she knew what she knew, but he trusted her knowing.

With this trust, Cash heads out to White Earth to investigate, occasionally bringing with her Geno, Wheaton’s other young ward. Unlike her, Geno was raised most of his life with his Indian family, so is more familiar with the ways of the local Native Americans, an invaluable asset when dealing with a people understandably leery of outsiders, even ones who look like themselves. 

Cash and Geno’s inquiries eventually lead them to a charismatic church on the prairie, with two small graves just beyond. The hymnals inside the church match the page found on the corpse, but Cash instinctively knows to tread lightly and not identify herself to the congregation as an investigator for the sheriff, as she subtly listens for gossip and assesses the people around her.

Pastor John Steene is clearly in charge of the entire operation. A handsome white man, he’s eager to bring another pretty young Indian woman into his flock—to join all the other eager young women already in his congregation. His wife Lillian is less enthused, but as Cash continues snooping around the church, the two strike up a surprisingly warm bond, starting one night over a dinner Cash reluctantly agrees to attend. She finds herself opening up to the pastor and his wife in a way she never thought possible:

She shared things about her life she hadn’t shared with anyone other than Wheaton. Some of the abuse in the foster homes. The ones Cash could bring herself to talk about. Both the pastor and Lillian listened attentively. At some point, Lillian warmed up to her. She nodded in sympathy at some of Cash’s stories, plied her with good food and kind attention. In Cash’s eye, the pastor looked less and less like a cat ready to pounce. Instead, he seemed to radiate real concern and care.

 

When the pastor said, “It sounds like the people you lived with weren’t real Christians,” Cash agreed. Some of her misgivings about the couple, about their church and the dark shadow, were chiseled away by the couple’s kindness. She even forgot to ask about the two small graves by the church.

No matter her feelings for the complicated couple though, there’s no denying the strange shadow that still lurks outside, hovering over the headstones of two dead children bearing their surname. Is it the same shadow Cash saw in the morgue? And how will Cash be able to prove the dead woman was anything more than someone with a passing connection to the Steenes and their welcoming, if controversial parish?

One of the best aspects of this third Cash Blackbear Mystery is how unflinchingly it depicts the struggles and complications of life for Native Americans growing up around the White Earth Reservation in the 1970s. Cash constantly feels alienated from her people as a “city Indian”, taken from her family as a small child to be raised by white foster families, with her language and culture constantly beaten out of her. As if that weren’t bad enough, the abuse causes her to consistently second-guess herself, particularly when it comes to her relationships with men. Following along as nineteen year-old Cash finds herself, even as she struggles to do the right thing by the dead and by a culture that was not only forcibly taken from her but is now wary of her attempts at reintegrating at least some aspects of her heritage, is an absorbing, fascinating journey, with an intriguing mystery framework to help propel the narrative.

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