Our 2015 Literary Lion was the subject of this month’s discussion: Tony Hillerman. Renowned for his Navajo detective novels, Tony was a pioneer in featuring the operations of the Navajo Tribal Police and having members be the main characters of his series. In keeping with our general group rule, we read the first book in his first series, The Blessing Way. This turned out to be the crux of all the discussion.
In reading their first Hillerman book, and it being the first book Tony had published, there were a few flaws that made completing the book difficult for several people. There was an abundance of detail concerning Navajo culture and religion, but a lack of development in the secondary characters. It was also a surprise, after hearing about Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee in our planning meeting, that when they actually got into the story, Leaphorn was more of a secondary character, and the main protagonist, Bergen McKee, was the one who was explored in depth.
This brought on a very interesting side discussion about authors growing into their story-scape. In The Blessing Way, we see Tony following the often quoted “Write what you know” advice to new novel writers. With this first book, the author would have been more comfortable with the character of Bergen, as he embodies many of Hillerman’s own life experiences. Not only was he a college professor who would understand academic politics, He was of an age with Bergen. (Tony was also a decorated combat veteran of World War II, serving from August 1943 to October 1945. He served as a mortar-man in the 103rd Infantry Division. He earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart.) Having attended a reservation school as a child, and living in New Mexico, he had a profound appreciation for the wonders of the Southwest. It was only natural that his main focus would be on Bergen, and the setting in writing his first novel.
An astute editor actually told Hillerman, that the real source of appeal he had for readers, was in his Navajo characters. They represented (particularly at this time) a whole new universe to set mysteries in – and Tony, with his intimate knowledge of reservations, and how they operate, was perfectly positioned to explore this. In the following books the focus is very definitely on Leaphorn (and later Chee) with more action, and more targeted details about Navaho ways that directly play into the story.
After learning more about the development of a great writer, members who hadn’t finished the book said they were going to give it another shot. Several members asked for stand out titles in the series so they could read one of Tony’s more mature novels. The following were suggested (click on the title to go to our catalog and request it):
Dance Hall of the Dead
A Thief of Time
The Shape Shifter
In closing, I reminded everyone that next month, Tony’s daughter Anne will be calling in to join the discussion on her book, Spider Woman’s Daughter – in which she continues her father’s stories, but from the perspective of Jim Chee’s wife! We’ll be talking to her about both her novels, and her father’s.