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Hillerman’s groundbreaking introduction of a Native American sleuth, Joe Leaphorn, had been almost an accident of plot making, writes his biographer.

‘Tony Hillerman: A Life’
By James McGrath Morris
University of Oklahoma Press (2021, 348pp)

“It’s a dirty shame that Americans (including Navajos) know so little about the Navajo culture,” Tony Hillerman, who died in 2008, once lamented. “I try to open the window for the readers and let them look in.” 

World War II veteran, journalist at the Santa Fe New Mexican, professor of journalism at UNM — then head of its English department — Tony Hillerman yearned for more. He wanted to write The Great American Novel. 

A country boy from central Oklahoma, born in 1925, Hillerman grew up amid the Potawatomi reservation, his ancestors the benefactors of the Homestead Act. His father, Gus, toiled long hours running a grocery store (and it killed him), while the young Hillerman went to Sacred Heart school among the Potawatomi children, inculcating certainly his lifelong belief that “we’re all the same species,” as he later noted. He wasn’t a great student, but he was an avid reader. 

Inducted into the army in August 1943, he saw intensive fighting in France and Alsace at the Battle of the Bulge, and was severely wounded by stepping on a mine. His time in the service haunted him, and he would finally return to the experience in one of his last books, “Kilroy Was There.” The horrors of war led him to a formative event he witnessed as a 20-year-old newly-discharged veteran in 1945 on the edge of the Navajo Nation: an Enemy Way ceremony that was conducted for two returning marines to cleanse them “of the evil to which they had been exposed while fighting in the Pacific.”

Hillerman would return to that ceremony 25 years later, in his first novel, “The Blessing Way.”

Author James McGrath Morris, who has written books about Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos (“The Ambulance Drivers”), as well as biographies of Black journalist Ethel Payne and media mogul Joseph Pulitzer, opens this engrossing new life of Hillerman with this defining experience in Navajo Nation for the author, who did not yet grasp the magnitude of its impact on his life and career. He would work tirelessly as a journalist and academic until the publication of  “The Blessing Way” — which first introduced his “groundbreaking” Native American sleuth called Joe Leaphorn — even though, Hillerman admitted, “there’s no Navajo in the world named Leaphorn!”

Influenced by mystery writers Eric Ambler (“The Mask of Dimitrios”), Raymond Chandler (“The Little Sister”) and Graham Greene (“The Third Man”) — as well in his Indigenous depictions by anthropologist Oliver La Farge (“Laughing Boy” earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1930) and Australian Arthur Upfield (“The Bone Is Pointed”) — Hillerman longed to be a novelist of authentic depictions. Description, he knew, was his forte, not plotting. This he had learned as a journalist, and he even advised one hesitant student who wasn’t sure whether she should join the English department: “If you really want to learn to write, and learn the discipline of writing, which is what it’s all about, you’d be better off in the journalism department.”

While sitting in interminable faculty meetings, he was “really in chapter nine,” he remembered later. After dinner with his growing family in their Albuquerque house, he would play solitaire, developing scenes for his novel in progress. 

His work’s unique background in Indian Country caught the eye of editor Joan Kahn, who had her own mystery imprint at Harper & Row, which had published the year before N. Scott Momaday’s novel “House Made of Dawn.” It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and opened the floodgates for Native American literature into the mainstream.

Timing is everything, and Hillerman’s eye for detail and care with research convinced the critics he had staying power — his Navajo characters were the most memorable parts of his first novel. In quick succession he wrote more mysteries that deepened his affinity for his “Navajo Sherlock Holmes,” Joe Leaphorn — “Dance Hall of the Dead” won the Edgar Prize in 1974 and one observer noted, “Tony Hillerman blows through musty manor halls with a breath of Southwestern desert air.”

He invented the younger, more inquisitive Navajo sergeant Jim Chee in “People of Darkness” (1978), and had his first breakout bestseller with “A Thief of Time” (1988). When Hollywood came calling, in the form of Robert Redford’s interest in “Skinwalkers,” Hillerman was wary, and the relationship never quite flourished. 

What did the Navajo Nation think of his mining their culture, some would say appropriating their identity? Morris addresses these voices in his final analysis — he considers critics such as Luci Tapahonso, first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, who chastises Hillerman’s work as “transgressive.” Morris quotes her as saying, “He wrote about things he didn’t understand … you have to know Navajo to know about some of those rituals and ceremonies.”

Hillerman simply responded to critics: “The reason I feel comfortable with Navajos and am attracted to them is that, in many ways, they are the same kind of people I am.” And by this he referred to an upbringing of rural poverty, religious education and with a high value on telling stories. 

On the other hand, he has been celebrated by the members of the Navajo Nation Tribal Police, and thanked by schools for his advocating for literacy and reviving interest in the old ways. His family’s philanthropy was private. His novelist daughter, Anne Hillerman, carries on the Navajo characters he birthed. 

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