Book of the Week
Tony Hillerman wrote 18 mystery novels that opened a window into the Navajo’s cultural and physical landscapes. Many of the mysteries were prize winners and bestsellers.
Now the cherished New Mexico writer – who died in 2008 – is the subject of a newly published biography “Tony Hillerman: A Life” by James McGrath Morris.
The biography, like Hillerman’s fiction, is deeply researched, lovingly detailed and eminently readable.
Morris had several motives for wanting to write the book. One was that he simply liked Hillerman’s fiction writing.
“And once I read and got to know those Navajo novels, I felt the significance of his accomplishment was under-appreciated,” Morris said in a phone interview from his Santa Fe home.
And what accomplishment was that?
“Hillerman did something more than write a mystery. He used the mystery genre to unravel the mystery of the Navajos to the wider world,” Morris said. “The second thing he did when he published ‘The Blessing Way’ in 1970 was to introduce a detective of color, which was quite startling to readers as well as to reviewers.
(Until then) the mystery shelf in bookstores was mainly white male detectives or female private eyes.”
“The Blessing Way” was the first of Hillerman’s 18 Navajo mysteries.
His first Navajo police detective was Lt. Joe Leaphorn.
Morris wrote that “the ground-breaking introduction of a Native American sleuth into the world of mysteries had been an afterthought, almost an accident of plot making …”
In another part of the biography, Morris quoted Hillerman as saying he had thought of Sheriff Hugh Anderson of Borger, Texas as “a cop who tempered justice with a sort of humane wisdom” and he would remember the sheriff when he began crafting the fictional Leaphorn. Hillerman was a reporter for a Borger newspaper when he got to know Anderson.
Several books later, Hillerman brought in a younger Navajo cop, Jim Chee, in a starring role, and later he added Navajo policewoman Bernadette Manuelito.
Morris’ biography precisely tracks Hillerman’s life from his birth in 1925 through his years growing up in small-town Oklahoma, his college years, his time as a wounded mortar gunner in the European theater of World War II, his work as a journalist at newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, and his later success as a renowned author of mysteries.
Morris injects Hillerman’s own remembrances of family members, fellow soldiers, fellow students, administrators and teaching colleagues at the University of New Mexico, poker-player buddies, and trusted New York publishing house editors.
“I earnestly believe that Hillerman’s attraction to Navajo spirituality, his search for harmony, is rooted in his own personal struggles with what we now call PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder),” Morris said, referring to the effects of Hillerman’s wartime wounds. “In some sense, he remains devoted to Catholicism, but he’s open to other spiritual traditions.”
Morris also believes Hillerman was more interested in transcending differences between cultures and less in book sales and fame.
The biography relates that many Navajos, individually and collectively, praised Hillerman’s Navajo novels. In 1987 the Navajo Tribal Council designated him “A Special Friend of the Diné” for “authentically portraying the strength and dignity of traditional Navajo culture.”
Hillerman, Morris noted, felt more honored by the tribe’s celebrating his novels than any of the many literary prizes he received.
However, Hillerman faced criticism from some quarters for describing Navajo religion and culture in the novels.
“Was Hillerman engaged in cultural appropriation?” Morris asked rhetorically. “Part of that answer is that his reverential pursuits hardly equate with commercialism like stealing designs for a T-shirt. He may or may not have engaged in cultural appropriation, but it’s not the same.”
Hillerman’s daughter Anne said in an email that she feels grateful that an author with Morris’ “intellect and sensitivity” wrote the biography and that Morris kept her and her siblings informed during his research and writing.
“Best of all, in my biased view, McGrath Morris gives Marie Hillerman, my strong, smart, self-effacing mother, the credit she has long deserved for helping Tony become a pivotal, pioneering figure in Southwestern mysteries,” she added.
In Marie, Morris wrote, Hillerman had a well-read partner whose writing advice he valued.
Anne has followed in her father’s footsteps, writing popular mysteries set on the Navajo rez that feature Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito.
Morris, a Santa Fe resident, is a respected biographer. His previous biographies include “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power,” “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press” and “The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made in War.”
Here are some of James McGrath Morris’ upcoming book events:
- Anne Hillerman will introduce Morris, author of “Tony Hillerman – A Life” at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12 at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., Santa Fe. To register for a seat, click on the link in the details section of collectedworksbookstore.com. The 5 p.m. event is sold-out but streaming is available. Click the “Register Here” button on the events page for remote access.
- Morris and Anne Hillerman will be in conversation about “Tony Hillerman: A Life” in a virtual event at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13 hosted by Bookworks. To access the event click on the “Register Here” button on bkwrks.com/hillerman.
- Morris and Anne Hillerman give presentations in a prelude to the Southwest Word Fiesta at 4 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Miller Library, Western New Mexico University, Silver City. This free event celebrates the life and work of Tony Hillerman, his author-daughter Anne and his photographer-brother Barney Hillerman. No registration is required for seats. For a remote access link go to swwordfiesta.org/2021-festival.
- Morris will talk about the new biography at 4 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, 150 E. Lohman. For information on in-person seating or a link to remote access go to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 575-491-5041.
- Morris and Anne Hillerman discuss “Tony Hillerman: A Life” at a meeting of the Northern New Mexico Press Women at noon Oct. 23 at Joe’s Dining, 2801 Rodeo Road, Santa Fe. To register to attend, email email@example.com. Luncheon reservations required.