Monday, October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman

I just read in today's NY Times that Tony Hillerman passed away this weekend. Hilerman, author of a series of detective novels set in Navajo country, was 83 years old. I loved his books for their descriptions of Navajo culture and traditions, and for the natural beauty of the west that he so carefully and painstakingly captured in his writing.

An excerpt from Marilyn Stasio's NY Times obit:

Mr. Hillerman’s evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.

“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures,” Mr. Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. “I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.”
Ms Stasio's obituary is well worth a few moments, and will almost surely send you off to the library for one of Hillerman's award-winning novels. I will include one more excerpt from her excellent remembrance:

The recognition that gladdened him most, however, was the status of Special Friend of the Dineh conferred on him in 1987 by the Navajo Nation for his honest, accurate portrayal of Navajo people and their culture. It was also a special source of pride to him that his books are taught on reservation high schools and colleges.

“Good reviews delight me when I get them,” he once said. “But I am far more delighted by being voted the most popular author by the students of St. Catherine Indian school, and even more by middle-aged Navajos who tell me that reading my mysteries revived their children’s interest in the Navajo Way.”
Hillerman's books were not great literature. They were fun to read, and even Hillerman called them "entertainments" -- but he told stories that celebrated the people and country that he loved, and that created an appreciation among many readers for the culture and traditions of the Navajo and other Native Americans living in the Southwestern United States.

All of us have authors whose work becomes personal to us - we feel connected to the author, as if he is writing just for us. We await his next book like a kid anticipating the next Harry Potter adventure. So it was for me with Hillerman.

I am sorry to hear of his passing. I will do what readers do in such circumstances - I will go find my old copy of "The Blessing Way" and I will read it again. I think he'd probably like that.

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