Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way

We had a big turnout yesterday evening, writes Jeannine. This was no real surprise as we were discussing Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way. Several people were new to the group and had come primarily because Hillerman was the topic of the meeting. And when I asked how many people had read most or all of the series, there must have been 15 hands in the air. And it made for a wonderful discussion – the level of knowledge was high, and the anecdotes fascinating. The book wasn’t too shabby either.

All but two of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries have been set in the American Southwest, and feature either Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant/later retired Joe Leaphorn or the much younger officer Jim Chee, or both. The Blessing Way is the first of the series, with Joe Leaphorn as main investigator. There are several plot threads woven through the story – the police search for Luis Horseman, wanted for assault, who is later found dead; the search for his murderer; the stories of Navajo Wolf witches active in the Lukachukais; and the journey of Bergen McKee, who finally motivates himself enough to complete his research on Navajo witchery by following recent accounts. All three come together in the final denouement.

We had two people for whom this was the first Hillerman they had ever read. One had difficulty getting through it, but had a friend familiar with the stories and the region to “walk her through it.” It wasn’t that she dislikes it, she said, but that it was all so unfamiliar to her. Not only was the culture foreign to her, but she has never been in that part of the country either. Our other newbie is a hard man to please; he often reads a few pages then passes it off as only fit for the Chili Pepper Readers (the romance book club which he attended for a while). But he was happy with this one, not only read the whole book, but enjoyed it very much as well. And he’s Danish, so the place and culture must have been new for him too.

The rest of us must have driven them nuts throughout the discussion, constantly comparing Leaphorn with Chee, aspects of later books, changes in characters throughout the series, and other spoilers no doubt. One member said he had read his first Hillerman in South Africa and loved it and wanted MORE, but could never find any. So when he came to the United States one of the first things he did was to find the rest of the series. Obviously he is a man who has his priorities straight.

We began the discussion with the basics. Hillerman’s first story was The Fly on the Wall, more of a thriller than a mystery. We discussed whether The Blessing Way had elements of both thriller and mystery. Some couldn’t see any thriller elements and thought it definitely mystery (who did it and why?). Others said the episode with McKee, Ellen Leon and the Big Navajo in Many Ruins Canyon definitely qualified as thriller (who will live and who will die?). This brought us to the point that McKee seemed to be more at the center of the book than Leaphorn. One member wondered if Hillerman originally planned to focus on McKee, and might have switched with the popularity of Leaphorn. Another thought maybe it was to introduce the Navajo culture through white eyes (McKee’s), then go deeper through Leaphorn (non-religious Navajo), and later Chee (religious Navajo).

Most thought the plot held up over time (it was originally published in 1970), though several said they definitely enjoyed it more the first time – that first exposure to the setting and culture perhaps. Some thought the plotting was a little uneven in this book, the ending (motive) seemed to come suddenly out of left field. Everyone loved the cultural detail and how it was presented best, even those few who were bogged down/uninterested in the plot. The interaction between characters was always interesting and intricate. Many liked how Leaphorn went to a Trading Post and past the word around that the man Luis had hurt did not die, and it would be better if he came in now, knowing that the man’s clan and relatives lived throughout that area and would get the word through the grapevine to Luis. Leaphorn also did much of his questioning at a gathering of the clan at a ceremony, participating in the festival while he chatted everyone up who might know anything, hoping a stray fact would break loose.

Readers also had an appreciation for Hillerman’s portrayal of women characters. While a few people wanted to take the character of Ellen Leon and slap her upside the head, she was still a believable character who responded to events in a reasonable manner. Hillerman has even more interesting female characters in later books, especially those who enter Jim Chee’s life. Everybody’s favorite was Leaphorn’s wife Emma (who does not make an appearance in this first book), a traditional Navajo who softened Leaphorn and acted as his moral core. Quite a few people would have liked her to be a continued presence throughout the series, but her absence may be part of what draws Leaphorn out of retirement to help in investigations in later novels.

Only a few niggling questions or quandaries remain. Sand in both the victims face and mouth were brought up as Significant Details, which was never fully explained. Horseman was said to have been suffocated, but not how. Several members “assumed” it had been with sand, but that was left as a definite loose thread. The scene in the cliff dwelling was intriguing and exciting, but one person brought up the fact that acoustics in those sites are pretty incredible, and that surely the guard would have heard them talking inside, as well as their digging in the wall (I think I’m managing to not include spoilers here…). In fact, one member claims that one of the theories for the disintegration of some of the cliff communities was because of people hearing things they weren’t supposed to, and the hard feelings escalated enough to split the community.

By far the part of the discussion everyone enjoyed the most was the discussion of Navajo culture and world view. The ambition and quest for wealth so prevalent in American culture is considered a sign of witchcraft by Navajos. Theirs is a view of keeping the world and spirit in balance, and this means limiting both unhappiness and happiness, poverty and wealth. One scene from a later book was related to illustrate this point, when a mother was told that her son had robbed a store, and she couldn’t comprehend why he would do that. She knew he had $700 in his pocket, and even that was more than he needed, so why would he rob for more. It was a concept that held no meaning for her.

The Navajo concept of death was discussed at some length, including the fact that a person who died of natural causes was just gone, but someone who died violently or by accident would be split into the good and bad, and all the bad aspects became a ghost and very dangerous. The Navajo also have no word for time. One member thought that might be related to the great distances involved, the Navajo reservation being about the size of New England. Quite a few people mentioned the practice of stopping outside a home and waiting to be acknowledged before coming up to the house or hogan. Another person noted how aid groups or the government would build houses for the Navajo, but they were on the white plan and included indoor plumbing. The Navajo thought that was disgusting and would not live in them, building a hogan beside the house instead.

Many people were impressed with the role of the clan in the matriarchal society, how one always introduced oneself by his clan membership (I was born of the – clan, and born to the – clan, etc), so a stranger could place him in the overall clan hierarchy (which also determined who he could marry). This clan structure was also depicted in the Enemy Way ceremony, when the entire clan came together to stand against and destroy the enemy ghost/witch, as well as dance, have horse races and other social activities. For more about the Enemy Way, see this Independent - June 25, 2005 article. This kind of clan gathering brought to mind the pow-wows one member remembered from the 1950s when she lived in Flagstaff, Arizona. She said all the local Native Americans would come together (I’m not sure if this was just Navajo, or a mix of tribes) for 4 days of celebration – races, dancing, music, food, selling arts and crafts. At that point it was just for the native peoples, but outsiders were welcomed as well.

I’ve left out a lot. Please add your comments or points I missed to the blog.

We had maps all over the place. Arizona, New Mexico, Indian Country, Southwest…. Most of the places in The Blessing Way are actual places, though Many Ruins Canyon is fiction. Chinle, Window Rock, the Lukachukai Mountains can all be found on a good map. We also had books about the region, the Navajo, the Hopi and Tony Hillerman spread around. Hillerman Country really went the rounds of the table, and one member brought her copy as well. We had two sand paintings in the display, an old Navajo weaving, several southwest baskets, some Navajo related trinkets, some photos from a trip to Canyon de Chelly, and a pottery Storyteller figurine. And lots of regional food! Pine nuts and apples, red chile pistachios, and a southwest casserole that we never did find a good name for but it had all the good stuff – beans, corn, tomato, etc – and was pretty well obliterated by the end of the meeting. (Where’s that recipe?).

For those who like Tony Hillerman, but have read all of his books, members recommended James Doss's Charlie Moon series (the Ute in the Four Corners area), and Margaret Coel (Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden and Father John O'Malley in Wyoming). I highly recommend Mardi Oakley Medawar's series set among the Kiowa in the 19th century. They are serious mysteries, but Kiowa healer Tay-bodal is funny.

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