May 2, 2002

Stories on the wind: Tony Hillerman’s beautiful mysteries


KEYWORDS: Tony Hillerman authors of native american stories american indian mystery Navajo mysteries Navajo culture hillerman mysteries Indian mystery Lt. Joe Leaphorn Sgt. Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police The Wailing Wind Seldom Disappointed Lifetime Achievement Award 2001 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction verbal magic desert Southwest Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award The Blessing Way Windtalkers best-selling author bestselling

AUTHOR: Carole Anne Nelson, The Baltimore Sun

Stories on the wind: From a love for the Southwest, a respect for the Navajo ways and even overheard conversations come Tony Hillerman’s beautiful mysteries.
“Guilt,” says author Tony Hillerman, identifying one of the reasons people
buy his Navajo mysteries.

A workaholic, for example, who regards purely recreational reading as a
sinful pleasure can assuage her conscience with the educational value of
Hillerman’s faithful re-creation of the Navajo culture.

Or someone sensing
he may be a trifle parochial can feel good reading Hillerman, gaining a
greater understanding of a people and a place well beyond his ordered urban
or suburban horizons.

For millions of readers worldwide, however, the primary motivation is simply
that Hillerman is a darn good storyteller. Just ask any of the more than 600
fans gathering at the Malice Domestic mystery convention in Arlington, Va.,
this weekend to present him with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

They’ll talk about Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal
Police as though they were personal friends rather than fictional

They’ll speculate what’s likely to happen in The Wailing Wind,
Hillerman’s 15th Navajo mystery, due out in June.

They’ll compare Hillerman
the author with Hillerman the man as revealed in his recent memoir, Seldom
Disappointed, nominated for the 2001 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.

And somewhere in the conversation, someone will undoubtedly marvel at the
verbal magic with which Hillerman conjures up the vast expanses of the
desert Southwest.

Perhaps it’s Hillerman’s affinity for that land and its people that lures
the reader into an unfamiliar world to discover its beauty, its character
and its common ground with their own lives.

In describing the breathtaking
view of a valley he once saw where all kinds of minerals seeped out of the
rocks, he recalls, “You could see every color but green. In Navajo its name
is Beautiful Valley. On the map it’s called Desolation Flats.”

Tony Hillerman’s respectful treatment of its beliefs and traditions has earned him the
Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. There’s a certain irony in this, since
the best advice his first agent could offer on reading his inaugural
mystery, The Blessing Way, was to get “rid of all that Indian stuff.”

Fortunately, the author changed agents.

Collecting characters

Hillerman also has a talent for creating characters who come to life and
hang around in our memories. An admitted and inveterate eavesdropper, he
shamelessly borrows bits and pieces of other peoples lives.

“I take an arm off this guy and a leg off that one,” he says, shrewdly
observing the human comedy and pointing out its weaknesses and heroics.

And he’ll borrow from stranger or friend. Once he was dining with a fellow
author who had recently lost his wife. “It must be hard,” he sympathized.
“What do you do to get around it?”

His friend described how every morning he’d automatically reach over to the
other side of the bed only to feel the empty space. “My reason for waking up
is gone,” he said. He was relating his practical solution of changing to
sleep on the other side of the bed when he interrupted himself and said:
“Hillerman, you SOB – you’re going to use that!” And Hillerman did, when Joe
Leaphorn lost his beloved wife, Emma.

Certainly, his understanding of human frailty resonates with those who see
the world in more than black and white. “I haven’t really met a genuinely
evil person,” he says, “and that includes guys that went into the gas

Death-row interviews are just some of the experiences he has accumulated in
his mental shopping cart over his 76 years. The life he describes in his
memoir, Seldom Disappointed, would make a picaresque novel, if it weren’t

From a Depression Dust Bowl childhood in Sacred Heart, Okla., short on
material wealth but long on family and faith, he briefly went to college and
returned home to manage the family farm (also briefly). Then, at 18, he
enlisted in the Army, serving in Europe during World War II.

After rising to private first class, he received a Silver Star for his
bravery. He also was wounded by shrapnel, which earned him a Purple Heart
and, after an extended hospital stay, a ticket home.

Both experiences were turning points.

The journalist who wrote up his medal-earning exploits introduced him to the
mystical powers of writing, which could, he learned, “convert grubby reality
into high drama.” She excerpted his letters home in her article, and
encouraged him to become something he’d never been before – a writer. This
eventually led him to the University of Oklahoma School of Journalism.

Meanwhile, a delay that caused him to take a different ship home from the
hospital than first planned brought him into contact with a couple of Navajo
Marines. “Windtalkers” back from the war in the Pacific, they were on their
way to a ceremony to restore them to harmony with their people. The moment
caught his imagination, and stayed with him until he began writing novels in
the 1970s.

Traditional Navajos would recognize this fortuitous event as part of the
connectedness of all things, and Hillerman would agree. The meeting changed
his life and led, eventually, to a string of best sellers that have been
translated into different languages and distributed around the globe.

Wife’s support

Hillerman’s path to best-selling author wasn’t particularly direct, however.
It bumped along through journalism school and a string of long-hour jobs at
small-town newspapers in rural Texas before he rose to bureau manager in
Santa Fe, then on to a stint in academia.

And along the way, he had a traveling companion, his wife, who shared his
sense of adventure and who has remained the love of his life.

Hillerman refused to be intimidated by the obvious economic implications of
raising six children on a writer’s wage, and encouraged him to realize his
dream of becoming a novelist.

Malice Domestic attendees will have the
opportunity to thank her for her foresight when she and their journalist
daughter, Anne, accompany Hillerman to the Agatha Awards banquet Saturday

Although he will be accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, Hillerman may
not view this as an invitation to rest on his laurels (which already include
being named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America).

After a three-year gap during which Hillerman wrote his memoir, fans can
look forward to his next mystery – a tale, says Hillerman, of obsession,
misplaced priorities and how easy it is to let go of the things of real
value in reaching for fame and money.

Like its predecessors, The Wailing Wind should bring more Navajo wisdom and
humor to bear on the problem. And Hillerman will undoubtedly be observing
fellow convention-goers to see if there’s a metaphorical arm or leg he can
borrow to help him build a character in the mystery he currently has under


Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun

Reprinted under Fair Use 17 U.S.C. Sec.101

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