Monday, October 27, 2008

A Sad Day

I just heard that Tony Hillerman passed away yesterday.

If you don't know him, or the many books he wrote, you're missing something special. Mr. Hillerman was a mystery writer of rare talend. The vast majority of his stories Took place on in the Navajo Nation and the surrounding areas in New Mexico and Arizona.

I was born in Phoenix, grew up in Albuquerque, and worked for 8 years at a churhc in Sedona. The Southwest is my favorite part of the country, the closest to my heart. Tony Hillerman was able to capture it like no one else I've ever read. He knew what it is about those austere landscapes that makes them so compelling. He painted them, and the people who live there, so vividly that reading one of his books always felt like a piece of home for me.

For a lesser writer, creating a mystery series with a tribal policemen as the detective/hero could have been a gimmick. Not for Tony. He wrote about people, and cultures, that he know intimately. He never lost the humanity of his characters, or the cultures they came from, in romantic stereotypes. He showed us beautiful, fallable, human beings struggling to make sense of their lives in a changing world.

It seems to me that Tony's earlier novels focussed more on the mysteries, and the rich cultures of the Navajo and other nations served more as a backdrop. These features Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo policeman with a knack for mysteries. His desire to unravel the chaol and restore harmony to chaotic situations grew from his spiritual roots, but found practical applicationin his work. He had his big map on the office wall stuck with colored stickpins as he tried to perceive the underlying patterns. Joe was also a tragic figure, a man deeply in love with a wife who was slowly dying of cancer.

After a time, the stories seemed to shift. The mysteries were still first rate, but seemed to take a back seat to the personal struggles of a man trying to live in two cultures. Jim Chee was much younger than Leaphorn, but also much more traditional. He was a policeman who doubled as a healer. A lot of people have tried to portray the struggle to hold on to Native American traditions in the modern world. Their efforts are usually well-meaning, but hokey. Not Tony! The struggle he showed us through Jim Chee was painfully real, especially as the character's love life mis-matched him with women he loved, but who he could not find a way to be with and be true to himself.

The stories were told with wit, with an insightful eye, with a deep sense of compassion, and with a sense of the beauty of life that always shone through. From what I've heard his writing is a good indication od the man himself. Everything I've read says that he was warm, kind, generous, honest, and that his eyes twinkled with life.

I will miss Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (who Tony finally gave a happy ending) and I will miss the man who created them.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hillerman, and (as the Navajo people you loved so dearly might say) may you be surrounded in beauty.)

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