October 27, 2008


Mystery writer Hillerman dies at 83: His novels offered vivid descriptions of Indian rituals and the Navajo reservation. His heroes struggled to bridge the divide between Anglo society and the Dineh people. (Bruce Desilva, 10/26/08, The Associated Press)

Lt. Joe Leaphorn, introduced in "The Blessing Way" in 1970, was an experienced police officer who understood, but did not share, his people's traditional belief in a rich spirit world. Officer Jim Chee, introduced in "People of Darkness" in 1978, was a younger officer studying to become a "hathaali" -- Navajo for "shaman."

Together, they struggled daily to bridge the cultural divide between the dominant Anglo society and the impoverished people who call themselves the Dineh.

Hillerman's commercial breakthrough was "Skinwalkers," published in 1987 -- the first time he put both characters and their divergent world views in the same book. It sold 430,000 hardcover copies, paving the way for "A Thief of Time," which made several best seller lists. In all, he wrote 18 books in the Navajo series, the most recent titled "The Shape Shifter."

Each is characterized by an unadorned writing style, intricate plotting, memorable characterization and vivid descriptions of Indian rituals and of the vast plateau of the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

The most acclaimed of them, including "Talking God" and "The Coyote Waits," are subtle explorations of human nature and the conflict between cultural assimilation and the pull of the old ways.

"I want Americans to stop thinking of Navajos as primitive persons, to understand that they are sophisticated and complicated," Hillerman once said.

Occasionally, he was accused of exploiting his knowledge of Navajo culture for personal gain, but in 1987, the Navajo Tribal Council honored him with its Special Friend of the Dineh award. He took greater pride in that, he often said, than in the many awards bestowed by his peers, including the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, which elected him its president.

Hollywood was less kind to Hillerman. Its adaptation of his 1981 novel, "Dark Wind," with Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward regrettably cast as Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, was a bomb.

Tony Hillerman, novelist, dies at 83 (Marilyn Stasio, October 27, 2008, NY Times)
Hillerman's evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.

"It's always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures," Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. "I think it's important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways." [...]

Joe Leaphorn, seasoned and a bit cynical, has a logical mind and a passion for order that reflects his upbringing in the Navajo Way. His code of behavior is dictated by a belief in the ordered, harmonious patterns of life that link man to the natural world. But he is not a fundamentalist in terms of religion; the grizzled skeptic is the holder of a master's degree in anthropology.

Younger and more idealistic than his pragmatic fellow police officer, Jim Chee seeks a more spiritual connection to Navajo tradition. Over the course of several books, he studies to become a hataalii, a singer or medicine man. This ambition often creates friction between the religious faith he professes and the secular rules of criminal justice he is sworn to uphold. Chee first appears in "People of Darkness," Hillerman's fifth novel, as a counterpoint to Leaphorn's cynicism.

Leaphorn and Chee appear in separate novels of Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police series , each novel challenging them with a crime that seems to be entangled in the spirit world yet at the same time starkly rooted in the modern reservation life Hillerman knew so well.

In "Skinwalkers" (1986), Hillerman first brought Leaphorn and Chee together on the same case to offer a fascinating interplay of two different representatives of Navajo culture. In "Skinwalkers," the police officers investigate three murders on the reservation linked only by pellets of bone associated with the murder weapons. Is this an indication that the murders are the work of skinwalkers, witches who can fly and take the shapes of dogs, wolves or other animals? Leaphorn hates witchcraft and holds superstition, unemployment and whisky responsible for much of the suffering endured by his people. But Chee knows the power of forces the science of the white man cannot explain. The detectives blend their special views of the world to solve the case.

In addition to his complex heroes, Hillerman also wrote compassionately and with intimate knowledge of a great range of clansmen from the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes, people with whom he felt a deep affinity because he grew up among those very much like them. "When I met the Navajo I now so often write about, I recognized kindred spirits," he wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1986. "Country boys. Folks among whom I felt at ease."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2008 7:19 AM
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