Tony Hillerman’s Landscape

Anne Hillerman, Tony Hillerman’s daughter, and her husband, photographer Don Strel, came to the Santa Rosa library today as a fund-raiser for the Library Foundation.  In addition to a slide show and a talk about her father, his history and his books, they sold their new book Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, a collection of Anne’s text (history and interviews) and Don’s photos. Lillian and I attended the event. 

Tony Hillerman wrote 29 books in his lifetime. Seventeen of them were murder mysteries set in Navajo country with his two series characters, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.  Hillerman won almost every mystery award available.  The Leaphorn and Chee books were international best sellers and several of them have been made into TV movies shown on PBS, starring Wes Studi and Adam Beech. 

Hillerman’s books owed much to the fascinating culture of the Navajo and other Native American tribes in New Mexico and Arizona, and to the vast, wild, stunning land of the reservations.  Sweeping vistas of alpine meadows, spires of red rock sculpted by millennia of wind, water and sand, deep verdant canyons, mysterious caverns; the reader was immersed in this landscape as much as in the mystery. 

 Don and Anne were open, down-to-earth, friendly people from Albuquerque, who have a connection to the area—a son and grandson in Petaluma.  They gave this same presentation at the Petaluma library yesterday. Anne interspersed her talk with quotations from her father’s books, read beautifully by a local actor, Grant Smith from 6th Street Playhouse.  The presentation must have been nearly an hour, or more, and every moment was captivating.  The quotations were chosen to complement Don’s images on the screen.  Many of the slides were not in the book, including wonderful photos of Hillermann as a young boy, as a soldier, and as a new father.

Anne had many stories about her father and about the history of the reservation, many comments about the Navajo culture.  There are too many to go into here, but this one stayed with me: 

Zuni Pueblo has prohibitions against anyone taking pictures.  When Anne and Don first contacted the pueblo, the pueblo council told them they would not be allowed to take pictures.  They were both chagrinned.  This was the chapter about Dance Hall of the Dead, a novel set almost entirely in Zuni Pueblo.  Their Zuni friends in Albuquerque told them not to fret.  “Things are always changing,” the friends said.  “Just start on your book, have faith.” 

They worked on the book, and the second year, while they were planning their next road trip, a Zuni friend said to them, “Now might be a good time to contact the pueblo council again.”  So they did.  The new council chair told them a story.  The first Tony Hillerman book he had read was Dance Hall of the Dead, and he read it while it he was in college.  He was having a hard time in college.  It was drastically different from everything he was used to; and he was getting ready to drop out.  He wandered the campus, preparing to tell his parents he was coming home, when he went into the campus bookstore and saw a paperback book.  He said to Anne, “And there was a picture of a Zuni war god on the cover.” 

Anne said to us, “So I thought I was going to hear a story about how it was disrespectful to use other culture’s images, but instead he said, ‘I realized that I had to be a warrior, to be brave and do this thing even if I was sad and afraid.’  He stayed in college. He said he read the book six times, and it changed his life.  He regretted never being able to tell my dad that the book had changed his life.” 

So they got to take pictures in Zuni Pueblo; not only that, but the councilor who showed them around took them to a dance plaza like the ones featured in the book, something they would never have found on their own. 

That’s the kind of magical thing that seemed to happen a lot with Hillerman, and happens with Anne and Don too.  Part of it is because they seem to be such humble, genuine open-hearted people.  Part of it is the magic of the places and the power of the art. 

You can find the book on Amazon.  If you loved the Hillerman books, I recommend it.  If you haven’t read any of the Leaphorn or Chee mysteries, start with The Blessing Way and work forward chronologically. 

And by the way, speaking of magical landscapes that forge mystical connections and give us powerful gifts, support your library!

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2 Responses to Tony Hillerman’s Landscape

  1. Pingback: Dividing Iris and Peony | Small Garden Ideas

  2. I thought Hillerman was great. There is only one of his Navajo mysteries that I have not read but I have it in paperback. I have also not yet read Finding Moon but I own it, again in paperback. FYI they also made a movie of The Dark Wind starring Lou Diamond Phillips. I linked to the Netflix capsule description if you can use it.

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