Tony Hillerman
October 27, 2008 4:25 PM   Subscribe

The creator of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn died last night. His books were enjoyed by many. Tony Hillerman was 83.
posted by bjgeiger (40 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I hadn't realized he was that old. I really enjoyed reading many of his books some years back. They are "feel good" books in the best sense of that phrase -- respectful of a place and of people, rooted in a warm and generous moral sensibility, and written to be read.

That last sounds like an oxymoron, but so much writing is not really about the reading -- it's about making a statement, or demonstrating incompetence, or trying to look smart. Hillerman's books felt to me like works that valued and respected the role of the reader, and they are a pleasure to read.

I'm sorry that there will be no more books from him; I will have to go back and reread my favorites of his work this winter.
posted by Forktine at 4:40 PM on October 27, 2008

No more Jim Chee stories. :(
posted by Tehanu at 4:45 PM on October 27, 2008

ya'at e'eh and hag'on'eh, hosteen.
posted by dersins at 4:54 PM on October 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm a Hillerman fan, too, but no discussion of him is complete without throwing in this thought by Sherman Alexie:

I resent that he's made a career off Indians, and as far as I know, has not given much back. I'm on the Board of Trustees of the American Indian College Fund -- I haven't heard his name mentioned. I'm resentful that there are many writers out there making careers off Indians and doing absolutely nothing in return. There's a guy I'm reading with tomorrow evening -- Mr. Kinsella -- who's making a career writing books about Indians, and as far as I know -- he's doing nothing for Indians. People ask me and I give hard-core answers. You're making money, give it back. Donate 10% of your royalties to the Native College Fund. How about giving 10% of your royalties to the tribe you're writing about?

I last looked up Hillerman just last week, hoping there was a new book out. Chee and Leaphorn are two of my favorite detective characters, and I love his descriptions of the land.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:03 PM on October 27, 2008

Aw. My husband turned me on to his books. They're great...
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:14 PM on October 27, 2008

Man, that Sherman Alexie sure has an axe to grind. I don't see how money is relevant. George Lucas made money making movies with Wookies in them. Why shouldn't a Wookie living on Endor not get some of that dough Lucas is making? I mean Chewbacca lives with all those dang Ewoks. It doesn't make sense! George Lucas should pay Chewbacca 10%!

I've read most of his books, and enjoyed the Leaphorn and Chee characters. I felt his portrayals and the thoughts of his Native American characters were very balanced and thoughtful. Plus they were just plain fun to read. Nice for some escapist time.

posted by Eekacat at 5:16 PM on October 27, 2008

I love Hillerman's books.

And Sherman Alexie has a point. One of the reasons Hillerman was popular was his "exotic" setting; part of the setting he wrote about and in includes poverty and need of third-world proportions, and if Hillerman did not in fact use some of his money to give back to the community he took from - well, that would be shameful, and not at all part of the Navajo Way he wrote about so lovingly.

He was awarded the Special Friend of the Dineh award by the Navajo Tribal Council, so he may have done a lot, quietly, that we don't know about.

I guess you were trying to make a funny, Eekacat, but your point just comes off as offensive.
posted by rtha at 5:30 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I got nothing, aside from maybe "dot". I really liked Hillerman's books. He lived for a very long time and was hugely successful doing exactly what he wanted to do. That's awesome. I hope we're all as lucky.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:47 PM on October 27, 2008

posted by notsnot at 5:54 PM on October 27, 2008

He started his career by writing copy for Purina Pig Chow. I find that oddly inspirational.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:57 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hillerman's life was difficult, interesting, violent . . . yet I'd known his work long before I discovered what he suffered in WWII, how hard he worked to establish himself, his remarkable fidelity to his own vision. He wrote to please an inner yearning, I think. Maybe he never gave anything back to the Navajo. But he told a kind of truth often and he told it well. In doing so, he gave something to the rest of the world that has a value I would say he couldn't have matched with charitable donations. Even on his ok substantial paperback earnings. He was a great story teller. That would probably have been enough for him.

posted by matthewstopheles at 6:06 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by BrotherCaine at 6:07 PM on October 27, 2008

I always enjoyed his books- my dad used to buy them in the airport, and give them to me when he got home.

and if Hillerman did not in fact use some of his money to give back to the community he took from - well, that would be shameful, and not at all part of the Navajo Way he wrote about so lovingly.

I don't know about "the Navajo Way" re: cash payments, but surely the fact that many people have learned about a slice of America they weren't familiar with previously counts for something. Tony Hillerman grew up with Native Americans, he wasn't just some tourist looking for exotic culture. It's pretty odd to me that just because Hillerman is writing about people and places where he actually lives, just because he isn't of the same ethnicity of them he owes them money.

But anyway:

'"The people spilled their guts to him," said James Peshlakai, who is characterized as a Navajo shaman in one of Hillerman's books, "The Wailing Wind." "The elders, they told him stories about things their own children never asked about."
Hillerman returned the blessings he received from Navajos by donating money for a water delivery program at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau, N.M., to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gallup, N.M., and to put up lights at a football stadium in Monument Valley, Utah. '
posted by oneirodynia at 6:07 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Erm, that sounded snarky, and I didn't mean it to, and it was definitely not directed at you, rtha. Sorry for the tone.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:11 PM on October 27, 2008

I don't get Sherman Alexie's point. Did nothing?

I watched an interview last night with Edward James Olmos, and he was talking about how one of the writer's or producer's relative was all excited because there were Hispanics in space. "We're in the future!" was the quote. I'd link, but can't find it. Was on the scifi site.

To have characters that are loved is gift enough in my mind.

I am guessing there are lots of Muslims out there right now that would love to be featured in a well loved series of books.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:16 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by nonliteral at 6:17 PM on October 27, 2008

I hear you, oneirodynia, and you're right. Thanks.
posted by rtha at 6:27 PM on October 27, 2008


I finally got to see the Utah desert for the first time with my own eyes this summer. But 20 years ago Hillerman showed it to me.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:34 PM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Selfish first thought: OH NO, no more Hilllerman books.

posted by cccorlew at 6:43 PM on October 27, 2008

"A writer is like a bag lady going through life with a sack and a pointed stick collecting stuff."
-- Tony Hillerman

This quote, one of my favorites, is engraved on a plaque on the wall of the (newly-remodeled) Journalism building at UNM, where he taught from 1966–87. Rest in peace.

posted by wanderingmind at 6:51 PM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have read many of his books but fell behind some years ago. So many writers fail at capturing/creating the sense of place, the setting of their work. Hillerman could not only write an effective mystery but he truly made you feel like you were there in the canyons and reservations. He will be missed; he will be long remembered.
posted by Ber at 7:06 PM on October 27, 2008

Here is an older interview with Sherman Alexie where he makes a much more nuanced observation about Hillerman's books:

He reads Tony Hillerman even though he objects to the white author using Navajo as his main characters.

"I don't mind if a white person writes about Indians. It disturbs me when somebody like Tony Hillerman has made this whole career around writing about the Navajo because he ends up being the person people turn to to learn about Navajos rather than the Navajos themselves. He becomes the substitute, the expert by proxy."

What such writers produce is what he calls "colonial literature."

"Everywhere else in the world, it is considered such. In South Africa when a white South African writes about black South Africans, it's defined as colonial literature. The only place in the world it's not called what it is is in the United States.

"Tony Hillerman is a good mystery writer, his books are good. But it's still colonial literature; Barbara Kingsolver also writes colonial literature.

"White artists somehow believe that their art lifts them above the politics of their race," he says.

None of this is said with anger or resentment, but with honest examination.

I think the linking of Hillerman's books to colonial literature is pretty apt. The European colonial system produced some spectacular works of literature (eg Kipling, Forster, Conrad, etc) that give us a deeply critical and self-aware view into the colonial enterprise. Hillerman's books aren't up to the level of the authors I gave as examples, but they are in that tradition, and be given a similarly critical reading.
posted by Forktine at 7:11 PM on October 27, 2008

I'm not a huge hillerman fan, but I think those wide judgments of alexie's are categorically unfair and wrong, if I understand them right.

Whether a book is exploitative or colonialist or not is found in the writing, not in the skin color of the writer. Believe me, just because you're of a certain culture doesn't mean you can't write a story full of terrible stereotypes and exoticism. I've been to grad school with plenty of people who whip out them foreign words whenever they ran out of shit to say. Whether Hillerman is a good writer who happens to write about a culture that isn't his own or someone exploiting his knowledge of a underutilized place by playing on white people's naive vision of what Indians should be like, this question can be answered by looking in the books for examples.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:26 PM on October 27, 2008

posted by DesbaratsDays at 7:35 PM on October 27, 2008

My grandfather got me into Hillerman when I was a kid.

posted by tiger yang at 7:40 PM on October 27, 2008

I remember reading Thief of Time years and years ago and liking it, and ever since I've said I should read some more of his books.
posted by yhbc at 7:50 PM on October 27, 2008

I never fail to see the spine of my copy of "Sacred Clowns" as "Scared Clowns" and be confused.

posted by notsnot at 8:02 PM on October 27, 2008

"White artists somehow believe that their art lifts them above the politics of their race," he says.

And their gender, too, and their social status, and pretty much everything, only he forgot to say that that's writers in general, if they want to write about anyone remotely unlike themselves, ever. Take this bullshit back to grad school. Fiction is exactly about taking on alternate personae. "Write what you know," applied too literally, eliminates damn near every work of fiction that's ever been written, and I don't give a damn who wrote it. That you can only pretend to transcend the self is a truth that's useful to students of literature as they cobble together a portrait of the writer from published work and biography, but acknowledging it as you're attempting to create literature -- not analyze it -- is death. I'm not saying I don't understand Alexie's bitterness, but whatever demands he's trying to place on Hillerman here are unfair and ridiculous. Is it worth noting that American society was perhaps more willing to accept this view of Native American culture from a white writer? Sure. Does that have anything to do with Hillerman as a writer, or as a person? I can't see what.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:07 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this, bjgeiger; I hadn't heard. I thought the first few Chee/Leaphorn books were fantastic, then the next bunch in a row seemed lackluster — maybe because he only wrote three from 1970—1979, mixed in with his nonfiction and other writing, and then started churning them out almost every year. But Hillerman seemed to pick up steam again later in the series, impressively, especially being in his 80s, with health problems.

Certainly he must have been a tough man — from the NYT obituary: In two years of combat in Europe, Mr. Hillerman said, his company of 212 rifleman shrank to 8 survivors as they fought their way through France. In 1945 in a raid behind German lines he stepped on a concussive mine. His left leg was shattered and he was severely burned; he never regained full vision in his left eye.

My favorite part of the country, and two of my favorite fictional characters; I really like the way he developed the two separately, then brought them together after awhile.

"There's a guy I'm reading with tomorrow evening -- Mr. Kinsella -- who's making a career writing books about Indians, and as far as I know -- he's doing nothing for Indians."

So what, is my opinion on that. It would be nice if he did give aid and comfort to the tribe, which apparently Hillerman did, but — like Kinsella with the Alberta natives — as long as he isn't trying to exploit the Navajo, and treats them with dignity and respect as individuals, I don't think he owes them a thing.

Kinsella has actually made a lot more money writing about baseball, as far as I can tell, but just because one of his books became the movie Field of Dreams, should he send donations to the Chicago White Sox?

(I've read all 20 of Hillerman's novels, all of Kinsella's Indian stories, all of Alexie's fiction too for that matter. I admire each of them, but prefer Kinsella.)

The NYT obituary, by the way, says Hillerman received his honor from the Navajo because of how he portrayed them, not for any cash contributions: 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.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:03 PM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I love his stories and the world that he writes about. He was a good man.
posted by dougzilla at 10:03 PM on October 27, 2008

I really enjoyed Talking God. I'm re-inspired to check out some of the other books in the series.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:03 PM on October 27, 2008

posted by Rabarberofficer at 4:41 AM on October 28, 2008

"Why shouldn't a Wookie living on Endor not get some of that dough Lucas is making?"

That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.
posted by WerewolvesRancheros at 6:11 AM on October 28, 2008

I could give a rat's ass about writers being snarky about each other.

Tony Hillerman wrote good books that made me think about the Navajo in a way I probably wouldn't have otherwise. I enjoyed them. I'll read them again.

posted by Shohn at 6:22 AM on October 28, 2008

"Why shouldn't a Wookie living on Endor not get some of that dough Lucas is making?"

There is a Han Solo quote that would work here but I just can't think of what it is...
posted by josher71 at 6:45 AM on October 28, 2008

I once spent a few months during which I was very sick and confined reading through all of Hillerman's books. I owe him.

posted by fourcheesemac at 6:59 AM on October 28, 2008

Hillerman wrote well, for the most part, about a part of the world and it's people that most of us will never know or experience. He told stories that told volumes about the people and their culture that spawned them. Exploiter or cultural anthropologist with a nontraditional publishing process - you're entitled to your opinion. Just don't ask me to be offended with you.

Personally I thought the wookie example, while weak, was apt in one particular way - it's as silly as the argument it refutes.
posted by mce at 8:17 AM on October 28, 2008

I just can't get along with the idea that Hillerman exploited the Dineh. Yes, he made a lot of money writing books set in their culture, but he did possibly more than anyone to try to help people understand Navajo culture, and to an extent Indian culture at large. Understanding is a precious commodity in this case; just because Navajo life and values are different than the rest of the country doesn't make them wrong or backwards.
posted by azpenguin at 8:28 AM on October 28, 2008

I'm not sure it's a question of exploitation as much as different perspectives on culture. Most of us probably would say it'd've been nice if he'd given back. But to us that's what it is to mainstream white culture-- giving back. Nice but not required. For someone who grew up on a res, I can see how that kind of behavior is bizarre. For Alexie, it maybe is not giving back, or just nice. It's what you do because it's who you are, because community's extremely important, and so it's not even a question. Not participating in the community is immoral and strange in that sense, and so not doing it is yeah, exploitative. Because it's one-way. So yeah, given the continued systematic disenfranchisement of Native Americans, I can see how that would burn. So I do get what Alexie is saying, even if I think the judgment of Hillerman individually probably isn't warranted as far as I can tell.
posted by Tehanu at 10:16 AM on October 28, 2008

I worked on a few of his books ages ago and he was one of the few authors to send a thank-you note to a lowly production editor for some catch I made. I still have it around somewhere. To me he will always be a nice man and an excellent writer of mysteries.

posted by libraryhead at 8:32 AM on October 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

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