Stories On The Wind

From a love for the Southwest, a respect for the Navajo ways and even overheard conversations come Tony Hillerman's beautiful mysteries.

May 02, 2002|By Carole Anne Nelson | Carole Anne Nelson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Guilt," says author Tony Hillerman, identifying one of the reasons people buy his Navajo mysteries.

A workaholic, for example, who regards purely recreational reading as a sinful pleasure can assuage her conscience with the educational value of Hillerman's faithful re-creation of the Navajo culture. Or someone sensing he may be a trifle parochial can feel good reading Hillerman, gaining a greater understanding of a people and a place well beyond his ordered urban or suburban horizons.

For millions of readers worldwide, however, the primary motivation is simply that Hillerman is a darn good storyteller. Just ask any of the more than 600 fans gathering at the Malice Domestic mystery convention in Arlington, Va., this weekend to present him with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

They'll talk about Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police as though they were personal friends rather than fictional characters. They'll speculate what's likely to happen in The Wailing Wind, Hillerman's 15th Navajo mystery, due out in June. They'll compare Hillerman the author with Hillerman the man as revealed in his recent memoir, Seldom Disappointed, nominated for the 2001 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.

And somewhere in the conversation, someone will undoubtedly marvel at the verbal magic with which Hillerman conjures up the vast expanses of the desert Southwest.

Perhaps it's Hillerman's affinity for that land and its people that lures the reader into an unfamiliar world to discover its beauty, its character and its common ground with their own lives. In describing the breathtaking view of a valley he once saw where all kinds of minerals seeped out of the rocks, he recalls, "You could see every color but green. In Navajo its name is Beautiful Valley. On the map it's called Desolation Flats."

His respectful treatment of its beliefs and traditions has earned him the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award. There's a certain irony in this, since the best advice his first agent could offer on reading his inaugural mystery, The Blessing Way, was to get "rid of all that Indian stuff."

Fortunately, the author changed agents.

Collecting characters

Hillerman also has a talent for creating characters who come to life and hang around in our memories. An admitted and inveterate eavesdropper, he shamelessly borrows bits and pieces of other peoples lives.

"I take an arm off this guy and a leg off that one," he says, shrewdly observing the human comedy and pointing out its weaknesses and heroics.

And he'll borrow from stranger or friend. Once he was dining with a fellow author who had recently lost his wife. "It must be hard," he sympathized. "What do you do to get around it?"

His friend described how every morning he'd automatically reach over to the other side of the bed only to feel the empty space. "My reason for waking up is gone," he said. He was relating his practical solution of changing to sleep on the other side of the bed when he interrupted himself and said: "Hillerman, you SOB - you're going to use that!" And Hillerman did, when Joe Leaphorn lost his beloved wife, Emma.

Certainly, his understanding of human frailty resonates with those who see the world in more than black and white. "I haven't really met a genuinely evil person," he says, "and that includes guys that went into the gas chamber."

Death-row interviews are just some of the experiences he has accumulated in his mental shopping cart over his 76 years. The life he describes in his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, would make a picaresque novel, if it weren't true.

From a Depression Dust Bowl childhood in Sacred Heart, Okla., short on material wealth but long on family and faith, he briefly went to college and returned home to manage the family farm (also briefly). Then, at 18, he enlisted in the Army, serving in Europe during World War II.

After rising to private first class, he received a Silver Star for his bravery. He also was wounded by shrapnel, which earned him a Purple Heart and, after an extended hospital stay, a ticket home.

Both experiences were turning points.

The journalist who wrote up his medal-earning exploits introduced him to the mystical powers of writing, which could, he learned, "convert grubby reality into high drama." She excerpted his letters home in her article, and encouraged him to become something he'd never been before - a writer. This eventually led him to the University of Oklahoma School of Journalism.

Meanwhile, a delay that caused him to take a different ship home from the hospital than first planned brought him into contact with a couple of Navajo Marines. "Windtalkers" back from the war in the Pacific, they were on their way to a ceremony to restore them to harmony with their people. The moment caught his imagination, and stayed with him until he began writing novels in the 1970s.

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