Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tony Hillerman 1925-2008

Tony Hillerman has died at the age of 83. He was a wonderful storyteller.

Although I'm not a huge devotee of mystery novels, I much prefer non-fiction most of the time, I gave Hilllerman's books a shot on the recommendation of a former teacher and friend, Kanani Bell. He thought I might like them. Kanani's previous tip had been Milagro Beanwfield War, many moons before the film, and so I gave Hillerman a shot.

I might have started at the beginning with The Blessing Way, I'm not quite sure, it's been almost 30 years, but I really enjoyed what I read. So I kept on devouring Hillerman books until I'd consumed all that were in print. As the years went by, and his books were released, I'd generally pick 'em up and always throroughly enjoyed what I read. I recall particularly liking Skinwalkers and Thief of Time. Hillerman captured the Four Corners region so well. His descriptions of the feel of the area and its people were something I bought into completely.

I later came to know that this brand of fiction is known as "tribal mystery genre." Through the fictional vehicles of his Navajo heroes, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, Hillerman was able evoke for a mass audience what life is like on the modern day Navajo Reservation. It's true that these insights were seen through the lens of a non-Native American eye, but in the end, that is who the mass audience reader happens to be.

I always find thinking about other cultures and religions to be incredibly satisfying. But some are harder to absorb than others. Southwestern Native American cultures are quite rich and complex. The non-fiction books about them are usually rather dry and I often found them hard to wrap my head around. Hillerman's novels offered up a wonderful way to get a peek into the particulars of Navajo customs, culture, and beliefs.

Or as Hillerman himself said his mission was to "drag people into the Navajo culture and let them take a look at it." He believed that we as a culture might "learn a lot from the Navajo way. They place a tremendous value on taking care of your family, very little value, in fact even a negative value, on owning too many material possessions."

So, I can heartily recommend checking out any of Hillerman's tribal mystery novels if you want to immerse yourself in a time and place that is quite probably unlike your own.

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