It would be more than presumptuous for me to eulogize an author of Tony Hillerman’s stature, so I promise not to try. Still, I will miss him and his work.
Many of you have heard me disparage the quality of literature commonly found at airports, but Hillerman – whose work was popular enough to appear in them – is one of the exceptions to the rule.
It’s not that he was James Joyce writing mystery novels; he was not, and from what I’ve read about the man, he’d probably be the first to point that out. But apart from crafting himself a very successful career writing about “all that Indian stuff” his first agent advised him to excise, he – like another of my favorites, John D. MacDonald – transcended the genre with some real strengths as a writer.
The most obvious, and most celebrated, is the aforementioned subject matter. Hillerman would ultimately prove to be a far better judge of the public’s appetite for intelligently served observations about a variety of Native American cultures and their contrast with our “American” perspective. Where his agent believed them, apparently, to be a distraction, they ultimately were highly differentiating. At least for this reader.
Hillerman’s novels – mystery novels, even – made the histories of the Navajo, primarily, but to a lesser extent the Anasazi, Hopi, Zuni, Utes and other peoples sufficiently interesting to compel outside research. The resulting lessons were as painful as they were utterly unsurprising. Growing up, I can recall reading a book that my Dad had had when he was a child – a sort of Davy Crockett-style, fictionalized history of the frontiersman Kit Carson. Given that the book in question was probably authored in the early part of the twentieth century, I’m sure you can guess as to whether Carson played the hero or villain. The Navajo perspective, as related by Hillerman, was quite different from what I’d read. And after reading the history of the Long Walk, it’s easy to understand why.
Nor was it just the historical aspects that were compelling: I found – and still find – the Navajo philosophies on a great many things surprisingly well aligned with my own. As my friends and family are, frankly, tired of hearing about. Particularly the one regarding the differing cultural values with respect to interpersonal silence – that one never goes over well.
But although Hillerman was clearly sympathetic to the Native American cause, he was no apologist. I appreciate and recommend his work not because they serviced a naive and utopian view of the cultures of peoples such as the Navajo, but rather because they emphatically did not. Hillerman showed instead a deft touch for exploring the differing values without lapsing into cliche or becoming preachy – a significant challenge indeed. But from the perspective of one who knew little about the subject matter before becoming acquainted with his work, his eye appears keen, the lessons well taken. For all that he seemed to admire the family first economics of the Navajo people, as an example, his stories constantly highlighted the intrinsic difficulties they imposed on a people that – for better or worse – has been integrated into a modern capitalist society.
Indeed, much of the case of characters in the novels could be considered to be cut from the same cloth as Carver’s blue collar lives of “quiet desperation.” And while Hillerman was no Carver, few if any writers have done a better, fairer job of telling the Native American side of the story. A side that has too often been lost, and will sadly be in further jeopardy with his passing.
Besides the unwittingly educational nature of the novels, however, I’ll miss the characters, who will presumably follow Hillerman to wherever he’s now headed. Where someone reading a Tom Clancy novel might reasonably ask why he bothered putting people in the story at all, so much of an afterthought and cardboard cutouts of people did they seem, I often had the opposite reaction when reading Hillerman’s novels. The plot, cunningly crafted though it might be, became little more than a backdrop against which the lives of the characters – never easy or simple – would play out. In many respects, they embodied the tension that suffused Hillerman’s work: where Leaphorn was raised traditionally but had grown distant from his people’s teachings, the younger foil in Chee was struggling to maintain his heritage and religion in a world with less and less room for it.
Thus I lament the passing of another one of my favorite authors, and encourage you – if you haven’t yet had the pleasure – to pick up one of his books. The bad news is that there will be no more now. But the good news is that if you like them, there are quite a few in front of you.
So enjoy, and in the meantime, let me express my sincere condolences to the Hillerman family. I have always been, and will remain, a big fan.