October 29, 2008

Hillerman's land of enchantment

Tony Hillerman knew New Mexico

His New Mexico was as enchanted and troubled as it is in life.New Mexico indeed is the "Land of Enchantment," a tourist bureau's dream with picturesque sunsets, colorful balloon fiestas, real cowboys and Indians, and quaint old towns that look almost too photogenic to be real. Beneath all this, I knew it as a place of profound paradox--stunning vistas and nuclear bombs, unique cultural traditions and bone-crushing poverty, racial blending and murderous violence.

Looking at the slick cover images on New Mexico Magazine, or hearing visitors say, "New Mexico is so spiritual and such a healing place," I'd think I was missing something.

But Hillerman's stories reassured me that I wasn't crazy. He saw it too. In an essay in David Muench's photo book "New Mexico," he writes about the state as a place influenced by "edges" that overlap--the mountain and desert climates, the cultures of the Spanish, the Anglo and the tribal forces of the Navajo, the Pueblos and Apache. His books about Leaphorn and, later, detective Jim Chee, may have been fiction, but I knew he was speaking in code about the way things really were.

Yes, New Mexico is this beautiful and this ethereal, and it is also this dangerous and this mean.

"Enchantment" denotes a spell cast, and if you grow up around people who whisper about Santeria and skinwalkers and kachinas, you know that's not something to take lightly.
Comment:  I love photography books (hint for upcoming Christmas and birthday gifts), but they're rarely good enough to inspire me to spend money on them. I do have David Muench's Arizona and Ancient America, but not his New Mexico. (For fans of Native Americans, I highly recommend Ancient America.)

Tony Hillerman also put out a photography book: Hillerman Country. He wrote the text and his brother Barney took the pictures. This is another book I own and another worth having.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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