Tony Hillerman, an appreciation.
We lost a great American, a true gentleman, and a fine writer when Tony Hillerman died Sunday in a hospital in Albuquerque at 83.
Hillerman served his country as a combat infantryman in WWII, returning from Europe in 1945 with a silver star, a bronze star with oak-leaf cluster, and a purple heart for wounds that never completely healed. After the war he went on to a distinguished career as a newspaperman and then a journalism professor in New Mexico. All of this before 1970 when, at age 45, he published The Blessing Way, the first of 18 mystery novels that are his chief claim to our attention.
Hillerman also wrote several well-received nonfiction books about the American Southwest, and a very readable memoir, Seldom Disappointed, in 2001. But the 18 mysteries, featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are his monument and his considerable contribution to the Great American Story. I recommend them to TAS readers. They entertain, enlighten, and occasionally inspire. What more could you ask of fiction?
There are endless literary empty calories to be found in the mystery section of your bookstore (there are some fine writers there as well — list supplied on request — so no nasty letters from mystery readers, please), but none between the covers of Hillerman’s books. His intelligent handling of themes, his complex and sympathetic characters from the various races and cultures that live side-by-side in the Four Corners area (where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado come together), his lyrical presentations of the vast and beautiful landscape of the Southwest, and his compelling stories lift his work well above genre fare.
Hillerman was neither the first nor the last to write about American Indians and their culture, and how they engage, not always without conflict or confusion, with the larger Anglo culture around them. He just did it better than anyone else. Hillerman’s appreciation for American Indians and their culture began when as a youngster he attended school with Potawatomie Indians (and the odd Seminole) near his birthplace of Sacred Heart, Oklahoma (population 38 when Hillerman was born). Indians were poor, country people, just as Hillerman and his Dust Bowl–era farm family were. So he had no trouble relating to them.
Characters in Hillerman’s novels — Indian, Anglo, Hispanic, and anyone else — are presented as full-service human beings, not stereotypes. The Indian characters in his stories struggle with contradictory desires to adhere to their tribal identity and to be assimilated to the larger culture. Hillerman shows this conflict in his stories but never speechifies about it. Unlike a distressing number of other mystery/thriller writers, Hillerman is not overtly political. His Indians are neither the plaster saints of current liberal orthodoxy nor the villains or primitives some once considered them. All of his characters, Indian or otherwise, are people, not talking points.
The sympathetic and right-on-the-mark way that Hillerman portrayed American Indians earned him the respect of the Navajos and other tribes of the Four Corners who presented him with various awards and included him in on tribal events. He tells the story on an inter-tribal meeting shortly after the Washington language police decided that American Indians should be called Native Americans. Tony was curious about what real Indians thought of this, so he asked. The boys chewed it over a bit and concluded that as most Americans were native to this country it was pretty silly to reserve Native American just for them. They said they would prefer to be identified by their tribe, but if not this, “Indian” would do fine, thanks. One guy contributed, “I don’t mind being called an Indian because Christopher Columbus went looking for India and got lost. I’m just glad he wasn’t looking for Turkey.”
IN NOVELS WITH NAMES like Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, Dance Hall of the Dead, Hillerman gave us intricately plotted mysteries in an unadorned prose style. His novels explore the human condition in the subtle ways that literary novels are supposed to but so often nowadays don’t. The novels are morality plays, as all satisfying fiction is.
Hillerman’s recurring characters are engaging, so much so that many read the later novels as much to see how things were going with Leaphorn and Chee as they did for the whodunit and the cultural travelogue. In the stories, these two get older, grow, change, and evolve, just like real people do. Hillerman’s stories contain much of the fascinating and the unexpected, but little of the unbelievable. Unlike so many writers in the thriller line, Hillerman never puts undue demands on our willing suspension of disbelief.
Hillerman’s novels sold millions of copies, though never in the volume of a Stephen King or a Tom Clancy. He hit the best-seller lists frequently, acquired a loyal readership always eager for the next book, and won every award and honor to be had in the mystery field. By the time he was well into middle-age, the farm boy from Sacred Heart was well-respected and well off. But by all reports he never changed. He remained a humble, polite, approachable man who never forgot where he came from and never lost his sympathy for the underdog (coming from a farm in Dust Bowl Oklahoma and being a private in the infantry can do this for you).
I never had the privilege of meeting Hillerman, but two of my Bay Area friends, both mystery writers themselves and regulars at the writers’ conference Tony made himself available for, did meet him and counted themselves better off for the experiences. Diane Vogt of Tampa (The Silicone Solution, Six Bills) said in her meetings with Hillerman he was consistently “congenial and self-effacing with no obvious author’s ego — and always entertaining.”
Rick Wilber of St. Petersburg (The Cold Road, Where Garagiola Waits) calls Hillerman an entertaining conversationalist who loved to talk about the craft and art of writing. “When I think of Tony Hillerman I think of an old guy out in the middle of nowhere driving a pickup truck on a dirt road and trying to figure out the answer to something that really puzzles him.” Hillerman’s daughter Anne would agree. She said her father’s curiosity about all things human was one of the things that made his books so readable. “He could take little details and bring them to life, not just in his books, but in conversation,” she told an AP writer.
Oh yeah, conversation. Some writers are good talkers, most aren’t. Tony was. First off he had exactly the kind of voice and pacing you would expect a wise, gently humorous, old New Mexico sourdough to have. Add to this the natural story-teller’s sense of timing and effect and you have one of the most engaging speakers around. Test me on this one by visiting YouTube and listen to Tony on the art of writing mysteries and on the Southwest. He’s also the reader on a number of his recorded books. A treat to listen to.
The news of Tony’s death will probably prompt me to pull down a couple of my favorites of his. I’ll doubtless enjoy going through them again, but with a real touch of sadness knowing there will be no more stories from Tony, who will be greatly missed by those lucky enough to have known him, and by many more who didn’t except through his books.
Rest in peace, Tony. Thanks for the stories.
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H/T to National Review Online