October 28, 2008

A Hillerman appreciation

Tony Hillerman, Novelist, Dies at 83In the world of mystery fiction, Mr. Hillerman was that rare figure: a best-selling author who was adored by fans, admired by fellow authors and respected by critics. Though the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with an avowed purpose: to instill in his readers a respect for Native American culture.

His stories, while steeped in contemporary crime, often describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world. The books are instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals to incest taboos.

“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures,” Mr. 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.”
His Native experience:Mr. Hillerman wrote with intimate knowledge of the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes; he grew up with people very much like them. “I recognized kindred spirits” in the Navajo, he wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1986. “Country boys. Folks among whom I felt at ease.”

Anthony Grove Hillerman was born on May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Okla., to August Alfred Hillerman, a farmer and shopkeeper, and his wife, Lucy Grove. The town was in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, and the family’s circumstances were so mean that Mr. Hillerman would later joke that “the Joads were the ones who had enough money to move to California.”

“In Sacred Heart, being a storyteller was a good thing to be,” he said of his country village, which was 35 miles from the nearest library. Growing up on territorial lands of the Potawatomi Tribe, he went to St. Mary’s Academy, a school for Indian girls run by the Sisters of Mercy, and attended high school with Potawatomi children. He said he owed much of the veracity of his stories to his friendships.

“I cross-examine my Navajo friends and shamelessly hang around trading posts, police substations, rodeos, rug auctions and sheep dippings,” he wrote of his research methods.
Reactions to his work:Some critics found Mr. Hillerman’s writing humorless, moralizing and too reverential toward the Native American characters he favored. But even his detractors usually praised the ingenuity of his plots.

His third book, “Dance Hall of the Dead” (1973), won the 1974 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery novel, given by the Mystery Writers of America. In 1991 the group gave him its highest honor, its Grandmaster Award, after he had solidified the Navajo Tribal Police series with “A Thief of Time” (his own favorite novel), “Talking God” and “Coyote Waits.” His last book in the series, “The Shape Shifter,” was published by HarperCollins in 2006. Mr. Hillerman also wrote children’s and nonfiction books, including a memoir.

For all the recognition he received, Mr. Hillerman once said, he was most gladdened by the status of Special Friend of the Dineh (the Navajo people) conferred on him in 1987 by the Navajo Nation. He was also proud that his books were taught at reservation schools and colleges.

“Good reviews delight me when I get them,” he said. “But I am far more delighted by being voted the most popular author by the students of St. Catherine Indian school, and even more by middle-aged Navajos who tell me that reading my mysteries revived their children’s interest in the Navajo Way.”
Navajos, Hillerman Shared AffectionHillerman's relationship with the Navajo Nation stretched far beyond the pages of those books, which featured two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes--Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. He shed light on Navajo culture, his books becoming a bridge to the reservation for tribal members who moved elsewhere, and encouraged Navajo youth to ask elders about traditions and ceremonies.

"The people spilled their guts to him," said James Peshlakai, who is characterized as a Navajo shaman in one of Hillerman's books, "The Wailing Wind." "The elders, they told him stories about things their own children never asked about."

Hillerman returned the blessings he received from Navajos by donating money for a water delivery program at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau, New Mexico, to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gallup, New Mexico, and to put up lights at a football stadium in Monument Valley, Utah.

Staff at the Thoreau mission, where a murder takes place in Hillerman's "Sacred Clowns," "have already been saying Mass for him and saying prayers," executive director Chris Halter said Monday.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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