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Tom Chaney: Tony Hillerman 1925-2008

Of Writers And Their Books: Tony Hillerman 1925-2008. Tom says: "the joy of Hillerman comes from a second and third look. He will keep us busy for a time as we revisit the arid landscape and the two tribal policemen, Leaphorn and Chee." This column first appeared 2 November 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Just Who Will You Be?

By Tom Chaney

Tony Hillerman 1925-2008

Tony Hillerman died Sunday at age 83. Hillerman was a popular writer of contemporary stories of real Native Americans. His two Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee have entered the world of detective fiction in a way few detectives of color have done.

Betsy Burton, a Salt Lake City bookseller, talked about Hillerman's achievement when she heard of his death. She referred to Leaphorn and Chee, as symbolic of the writer's ability to understand the tug and pull of adherence to identity and desire for assimilation. Hillerman's "sense of place," Burton said, was "rivaled by no one else in the mystery writing world."

Hillerman made his commercial breakthrough with Skinwalkers, published in 1986 -- the first time he put both characters and their divergent world views in the same book. It sold an astounding 430,000 copies in hardcover, and was followed by A Thief of Time. His last novel in the Navajo series, The Shape Shifter, was his eighteenth.

It won the Edgar Award, the prestigious prize for crime fiction, but Hillerman was most proud of Special Friend of the Dineh Award from the Navajo Tribal Council.

In an interview he recalled how, as a young writer, his first agent advised him that if he wanted to get published, he would have to "get rid of that Indian stuff."

Fortunately for those of us who admire his work, he ignored the agent.

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 1980, 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, according to the Chicago Sun Times.

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

We came to admire his spare style; his vivid descriptions of landscape and weather and his complicated plots.

"Those places that stir me are empty and lonely," he wrote in The Spell of New Mexico, a collection of his essays.

For the past decade Hillerman has suffered from a number of illnesses, surgery, and declining eyesight. Nonetheless he kept writing.

There will be no more from his pen unless there are unfinished works which we hope will appear.

However, the joy of Hillerman comes from a second and third look. He will keep us busy for a time as we revisit the arid landscape and the two tribal policemen, Leaphorn and Chee.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-11-03 04:26:47
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