Anne Hillerman packs the mystery into 'The Way of the Bear' - Albuquerque Journal

Anne Hillerman packs the mystery into ‘The Way of the Bear’

“The Way of the Bear” is the eighth in Anne Hillerman’s absorbing Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito novels. And it’s probably packed with more mystery scenes than any of her others in the series.

There is suspected illegal fossil hunting, home invasions … and killings.

Who are the villains? Maybe Jessica Johnson, co-owner of Dinostar, a commercial fossil excavation enterprise, who suffers from facial blindness. She seems hard-hearted in the wake of her husband’s death. Is Cassidy Kingsley, a Bureau of Land Management ranger, an angry control freak or worse? How about Chris: Is he Jessica’s partner in crime or sex or both? Or neither?

There’s no shortage of guile, lying and avarice.

The mysteries begin with the first sentence and keep building, foreshadowing drama and crimes.

In the first scene, Navajo Nation policewoman Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito is standing alone in the sandstone Valley of the Gods, part of the Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. It is December and Bernie is seeking winter solace as a major snowstorm is approaching.

She hears a few gunshots in the distance. The sounds suddenly stop.

Anne Hillmerman

Bernie comes across potsherds scattered on the ground. Nearby are modern excavation tools – picks, shovels, chisels and hammers. She accidentally falls into a trench. Shaken but unhurt, she climbs out.

Then Bernie spies a dark pickup with a strange figure mounted on its grille. The truck is coming towards her and not slowing down.

(And that’s in just the first few pages.)

Bernie and her husband, Navajo police Lt. Jim Chee, are based in New Mexico. Chee has business in Utah and Bernie comes along at the urging of her husband. He thinks she needs to recharge her emotional batteries. She has the blues, maybe because she wasn’t tapped for an open detective position.

Perhaps something else is troubling her, something she’s uncomfortable talking about with her husband, her mom or her sister, though Bernie’s family has long been a comfort to her.

Bernie’s anxiety is another level of mystery that unfolds.

Her kindness and resourcefulness shine when she delivers a baby in the front seat of a car at night in a storm. Dad is holding a flashlight. It’s a girl. (Dad reappears later in the novel.)

The national monument itself is the setting – and a character – in the novel.

Hillerman devotes a page of background on the controversy in the creation of the monument and the land’s significance to Indian tribes.

The book notes that the monument was created by President Barack Obama in 2016. President Donald Trump cut the monument’s more than one million acres to one-fifth of its size. Then President Joe Biden restored it to its original boundary.

Hillerman writes that the larger allotment was backed by a coalition of Indian groups but others, including many Diné from the area, opposed the monument. They feared it will restrict their chopping of trees for home fires and prevent some Navajo healers from gathering plants and other items central to their traditional practices.

“Now that a coalition of five tribes – Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian Tribe – were part of the management – Bernie has more confidence that the monument designation would help protect this sacred place,” the novel states.

In a phone interview, Hillerman said she visited the monument twice and felt that “the whole thing captured my imagination. There’s so much archaeology there. The paleontology was news to me.”

The frigid weather is another character. “The way the story was developing, it came in handy where the weather could play a major role in the story,” added Hillerman, who divides her time between Santa Fe and Tucson.

The book’s acknowledgements section has more of the author’s thoughts on the national monument. The book also contains a glossary of 26 Navajo words with English translations.


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