Friday, October 31, 2008

A tribute to Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman May 27, 1925 - October 26, 2008

This is a tribute to a man I knew only through his books, and he touched my heart.

There are few authors in life that touch a reader significantly. Personally, there are very few writers of fiction that I search out and read everything they’ve written. I think I can count them on one hand. Tony Hillerman is one of them.

My dad suggested I read Hillerman’s books in the mid 1990’s. I am certain my first Hillerman book was: Skinwalkers. I chose it because “skinwalkers” were a very significant part of my young life – through campfire ghost stories! Skinwalkers are part of Native American Legend and more specifically Navajo Legend, and since I grew up near the reservation, I have heard their tale. A skinwalker is a person said to have the ability to supernaturally turn themselves into an animal, or the shape of an animal. Though I knew they weren’t real, as a child, skinwalkers were the only ghosts I ever considered might be real. I could not wait to read a mystery that included those old, scary, mythical friends. Upon reading it, I was surprised and grateful Hillerman’s novel was not a ghost story or horror story at all, but an intriguing mystery.

Hillerman wrote mysteries, “Who done it?” mysteries. The first thing that hooked me to his books was the setting: The Four Corners – where the four states meet: New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. This area is so close to my heart. It is my true earthly home. I grew up in Durango and Cortez, Colorado and, when I was a girl, my Grandad did mission work on the reservation at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. We lived in the heart of the Four Corners and traveled the area often to visit churches, deliver food, clothes, and the Good News to the reservations. It is such a beautifully rich, seemingly enchanted geographical area, sometimes my family just drove around and admired the scenery.

The area’s roadmap is ingrained in my soul. The Indian Reservations, the mountains descending into desert brush with their badland, natural rock, statues such as: Shiprock, Window rock, and the Sleeping Ute, The Painted Desert, the Four Corners Monument, and Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock Indian ruins. I could go on and on, and Hillerman did. That was the first thing that hooked me to his books.

I will not do Hillerman justice, but his characters were phenomenal. The main characters in the bulk of his books were Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Jim and Joe are not super heroes, they do not know ancient Chinese battle art forms, and they do not work out in a gym 10 hours a day. They drink coffee and stay up until wee hours of the morning investigating crimes. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are police officers that have a passion for the area, as I do, and a deeper passion for its people, as I do. They are Navajo men, making a living in a very poor, rural part of America, having to police both the State of New Mexico and the Indian reservations within it that are almost separate countries.

Internally and socially, Hillerman's characters are working out their faith and the traditions passed down from their Navajo ancestors. They are trying to sort out heavy modern day problems like, witchcraft, assimilation with the white man and preserving their culture. They are not rich; and they are aware of their social status. In fact, Officer Jim Chee lives in a one bedroom mobile home trailer and he’s living a paycheck-to-paycheck life. The characters are real and that makes them fascinating.

The final thing that endeared me to Hillerman’s books is the lack of sex, haphazard violence, cursing and horror. I feel safe in his hands; he never took me anywhere raunchy. He broached some subjects, such as the Native American ghost stories I talked about, that could have been exploited – milked for every violent, creepy detail. He could have taken a path that would have looked more like a gory crime investigation, but, instead, he was a master of mystery. He was an intricate artist of suspense, and his stories keep you on the edge of your seat, not at your window and doors late at night making sure no one (or thing) is coming to get you.

Against an intriguing, crime solving backdrop, Hillerman painted great splashes of real human experience. He painted sparks of romance, not the Hollywood dramatic romance, but the real romance that happens to real human beings. -- that girl you’ve worked with for years and always had feelings for, or your life-long friend who, after your wife dies, you begin to see in a more intimate light. He tinted the canvas with colors of human emotion -- human emotions of jealousy and fear, joy and compassion for the oppressed. His characters not only solved crimes, but delved into life’s great mysteries, tradition, faith, and the battle between good and evil.

According to Wikipedia, “He died on October 26, 2008 from pulmonary failure in Albuquerque at the age of 83.” If I could have written him a note before he left this world, I would have sent him a thank-you note. I would have said, “Thank you Mr. Hillerman for the good times. Thank you for painting such a beautiful picture of the southwestern area where the four states meet. Thank you for taking such care and precision writing about the rural area and its people and for giving us thought provoking entertainment. Thank you, Tony Hillerman.”

Tony’s books:
The Blessing Way, Dance Hall of the Dead, Listening Woman, People Of Darkness
The Dark Wind, The Ghostway, Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time
Talking God, Coyote Waits, Sacred Clowns, The Fallen Man
The First Eagle, Hunting Badger, The Wailing Wind, The Sinister Pig
Skeleton Man, The Shape Shifter
The Fly on the Wall, Finding Moon
The Boy Who Made Dragonfly, Buster Mesquite's Cowboy Band
[(He has some books of photography too!)]
Mystery!: A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits: American Mystery
The Dark Wind, Skinwalkers, Skinning the Night: American Mystery