Yesterday, when I read that Tony Hillerman died, I flashed back to one afternoon when I went as a guest to a writer’s group meeting at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I introduced myself, was I surprised when I shook one man’s hand, and his warm voice said, “My name’s Tony Hillerman.” I had no idea that this was the writers’ group he attended.
What struck me about Hillerman was his unassuming aura. He was generous and thoughtful with his comments to the other writers, and not any more important than the others in the room.
Like anyone else who lives in Albuquerque, I was aware of Hillerman’s work as a mystery writer whose stories center around the Southwest. A person cannot live in that city without being aware of how he brought weight to the region. Plus, his books are everywhere. I recall racks of them.
I’m in awe of writers who are able to attach themselves to a place and dive deep into its nuances. Reading a Hillerman novel is a trip to the Four Corners region of the Southwest. His version is not the one that requires putting one foot in New Mexico, one foot in Arizona, one hand in Utah and the other in Colorado before buying a Navajo taco from one of the food vendors.
If you go to Four Corners with Hillerman’s eye, you look for the person behind the scenery. Who is the person who is selling you that turquoise bracelet? Who lives in the houses far flung at the edge of the hills? What about life matters most to them?
Although tourists may visit the various pueblos and Native American reservations across the Southwest, those experiences are merely glimpses of these cultures. Hillerman wrote about people here by getting under their skin.
As he said, “I always have one or two, sometimes more, Navajo or other tribes’ cultural elements in mind when I start a plot. In Thief of Time, I wanted to make readers aware of Navajo attitude toward the dead, respect for burial sites.” [Brainy Quotes]
Considering that Halloween is coming up this week, here’s a Hillerman title for you: Dance of the Dead. The novel is the second one in his series featuring protagonist Lt. Joe Leaphorn. It won the Edgar Award for best novel.