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TONY HILLERMAN: An Appreciation

All I know about the Navajo I learned from Tony Hillerman.

As soon as I read my first Hillerman novel, The Blessing Way, I was hooked. For several more books I was under the impression that Hillerman himself was a Native American, so knowledgeable did he seem.  Also, given his last name, I imagined a whole scenario in which the first male of his family was born within sight of a big hill, hence the name.  Ultimately I read that he was not a member of the Navajo tribe, or indeed any other tribe, simply a man who knew and respected the culture of the American Indian and wanted others to join him in appreciation of their culture.

Hillerman’s two detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are members of the Navajo Tribal Police who work out of the Four Corners area of Arizona and New Mexico. It’s a barren but beautiful area, and Hillerman’s prose puts the reader right there.  The huge open spaces, the day’s heat and the night’s cold, the dryness of the desert, the hope when black clouds come into view and the disappointment when they don’t drop any moisture on the parched land–all of that comes through vividly in each novel.

Hillerman’s first book, written in 1970, featured Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee came along exactly ten years later.  Each one was the protagonist in three books, and then Leaphorn and Chee combined forces in 1986 in an even dozen mysteries.

Leaphorn is the older, more experienced detective, and somewhat surprisingly is the less traditional of the two.  Chee is more conversant with the customs of his people, and indeed in some novels he is working toward becoming a singer of some of the Navajo blessing or curing ceremonies.  Both men are college graduates who have returned to Four Corners to put their skills and their understanding of the white culture to work for the Navajos.   Although Leaphorn and Chee differ in age and personality, essential goodness and compassion shine through both men.

As with many series, it’s best to begin at the beginning of the books, or at least as close to the beginning as possible.  Both men age and undergo personal highs and lows, and the books will be more meaningful if they’re read in the order in which they were written.

It speaks volumes about Hillerman that there is a Tony Hillerman middle school and a Tony Hillerman branch library, both in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He left behind a wonderful legacy in his books, and his memory is honored in his adopted state.  He died in 2008 at age 83.

Although Tony Hillerman didn’t have his own web page, there is a great deal of information about him on the web.  One good source is this web page.

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