Learn Something New Every Day!

Posts tagged ‘Southwest’

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Anasazi.  Most of us have heard that term before and have a general sense to whom it refers.  The Anasazi are the ancient people who lived in the Southwest (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah), first emerging about 1200 BC.  At first nomadic, the groups eventually started putting down roots, creating singular dwellings as well as vast community pueblos as far back as a 1000 years ago.


Many ruins from those communities have already been discovered and excavated.   Archaeological evidence suggests these ruins were once thriving communities where families lived and loved, planting and irrigating crops; making pottery, baskets and tools; trading with other groups; protecting themselves from invaders while interacting with neighbors; and practicing religious and community activities. Some of the sites seemed to have been left with the expectation of the people returning in the not too distant future.

Montezuma's Well

Montezuma’s Well

Some of the ruins are well known and frequently visited.  I have marveled at these Ancient Voices already, noting such locations as Parawan Gap in Utah and Tonto National Monument and Casa Grande in Arizona.  Other area ruins includes cliff dwellings called Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot National Monument as well as various ruins in Canyon de Chelly.

Montezuma's Castle

Montezuma’s Castle

Tuzigoot National Monument, Looking Out from Inside the Ruins

Tuzigoot National Monument, Looking Out from Inside the Ruins

First Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

First Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

One of the largest ancient communities associated with the Anasazi is in Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. This site was designated the Chaco Canyon National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907.  In 1966, it was entered into the U. S. National Register of Historic Places.  Then in 1980, its official designation was changed from a national monument to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, better emphasizing the cultural as well as historical importance of this location.  In 1987, Chaco Canyon was named as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Historic Site.

chaco road in 1It is easy to set these fancy designations aside when visiting Chaco Canyon because the entry is over a 25-mile gravel road.  Bumping along that dusty road, I easily focused on the stark environment and started thinking back to the lives that made this site so magnificent thousands of years ago.  This huge complex served social and cultural purposes for up to 1200 people until about 1250.  The evidence of their existence is incredible as are their astronomical and engineering feats.  Their accomplishments are one of the reasons I am so enamored of the southwest area and culture.

chaco road in 2

chaco entering

chaco pueblo bonito map booklet

Evidence suggests that this cohesive communal site began unraveling around 1140, probably in reaction to a 50-year drought that started about ten years earlier.  More droughts hit the area between 1250 and 1450, along with corresponding deforestation and poor water management as well as the depopulation of outlying areas.  There is some suggestion that violence and warfare contributed to Chaco’s population decline, but there is little to no archaeological evidence to support that conclusion.  Most scientists agree that the Chaco people migrated south, east and west.

Chetro Ketl Site

Chetro Ketl Site

What was left behind at Chaco Canyon is impressive!  Within the canyon were thirteen major multi-room complexes, with hundreds of many-storied rooms in each, including Kivas or Great Houses for ceremonial purposes.  There were also extensive alignments of buildings that seem to capture the solar and lunar cycles, including some specialized alignments and markings associated with the Fajado Butte.

chaco hungo pavi two storyHungo Pavo is still unexcavated, so it looks much like it did when first seen by Europeans in 1849. As in all the ruins, the wall construction has stood the test of time.  Wandering through the ruins, it is easy to see how the corners were mitered, the windows, and even the wooden beams that added strength the roof.  The trees were transported from over 30 miles away.

chaco humgo pavo full

chaco hungo pavi wall close 1

chaco hungo pavi wall close 2

chaco hungo pavi wall close window

chaco hungo pavi wall close with wood beam

The Pueblo Bonito site is the best known at Chaco Canyon.  It has been extensively excavated, revealing more than 600 rooms and numerous two- and three-story buildings that served a population between 800 and 1200 people.  There were also several ceremonial structures called kivas.

Aerial View of Pueblo Bonito from Site Booklet

Aerial View of Pueblo Bonito from Site Booklet

chaco pueblo bonito against cliff mid

chaco pueblo bonito long view

chaco pueblo bonito beams

chaco pueblo bonito beams and wall corner

chaco pueblo bonito door and light

chaco pueblo bonito mid view

chaco pueblo bonito several rooms

chaco pueblo bonito side window

chaco pueblo bonito wall up

chaco pueblo bonito window detail

Part of the Pueblo Bonito Kiva

Part of the Pueblo Bonito Kiva

The Chacoans built this retaining wall to protect their dwellings from Threatening Rock perched precariously  on the butte.  The retaining wall worked!  Of course, it was built 800 years before the rocks fell in January 1941!

The Chacoans built this retaining wall to protect their dwellings from Threatening Rock perched precariously on the butte. The retaining wall worked! Of course, it was built 800 years before the rocks fell in January 1941!

chaco stairs 1Radiating throughout Chaco Canyon is a large system of roads that are incredibly straight, often reached via staircases cut into the cliffs.  The straight lines or roads extend 10 to 20 miles into the desert.  That the straight path of these roads do not always lead to other populated areas suggests to some archaeologists that the roads had a ceremonial purpose rather than a commercial one.  Whatever their purpose, they are a remarkable engineering feat. Part of this system are the stairs cut into the walls, giving access from the top to the bottom of  the buttes. Many of these stairways still exist today.

chaco stairs wide view

View of the Stairs from Site Booklet

View of the Stairs from Site Booklet

Boy Scout Group at the Top of the Butte Ready to Climb Down

Boy Scout Group at the Top of the Butte Ready to Climb Down

chaco stairs kids hiking down

chaco fajada butteAnother major achievement at Chaco Canyon is the highly sophisticated solstice markers atop the Fajado Butte.  Various markings line up with the sun and moon at different times of the year to mark celestial events.  This example is provided at the site:  “A sliver of noontime sunlight slashes between stone slabs onto two spiral petroglyphs, precisely timing the equinoxes and solstices by which the Chacoans planted their crops and marked their years.”  This aspect of Chaco Canyon is why this site is compared to England’s Stonehenge. Due to damage from excessive visits and vandalism, the Fajada Butte is no longer open to the public.

chaco fajada butte 2

chaco hungo pavi wall with fajada back

The following illustration is from a site publication, demonstrating how the markings work.  Fascinating!

chaco fajada butte solstice markes lyle yazzie pub

chaco fajada butte wide

If you have not yet visited the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, add it to your list.  It preserves the past for all of us and awakens the imagination about what was and what can be. Have you visited any historical sites here or elsewhere?  Share some details, so I can add new adventures to my list of places to visit.


“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” Henry David Thoreau

“Solitude never hurt anyone.  Emily Dickinson lived alone, and she wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known. . . then went crazy as a loon.”  spoken by Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons (Matt Groening)


IMG_7063In April, I traveled a total of 3,870 miles on a two-week road trip into the Southwest.  I knew what cities I would stay in for a few days each time and had some key attractions I wanted to visit.  But most of the trip was going to be simply wandering Arizona and New Mexico, enjoying the scenery and history of the area.  I even traveled a bit on an old stretch of historic Highway 66.  I had a wonderful time.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park

I travel alone on these trips—and typically someone will ask, “Why?”  Speculation is often that I would be lonely.  But that is never the case! Solitude is not loneliness—and I love the peace and quiet of the back roads I tend to travel. On those roads, it is easier to pull over and stop to watch some clouds drift by, appreciate some wildflowers, listen to some birds, even see some animals I wouldn’t otherwise notice.  Even without such wonders, the wide open spaces can be relaxing.  How can that be lonely?

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

My overall game plan was to stay a few nights in Flagstaff, Arizona; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Gallup, New Mexico, taking day trips from those locations.  In part, I just wanted to immerse myself in the area geography, driving the backroads and visiting the small cities that are an integral part of the Tony Hillerman novels I enjoy.  I also knew I wanted to visit Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and Four Corners.  Other trips would be decided each day, from a list of possibilities I had generated.  I was also open to just following signs and seeing what I could see.

Some Views from Monument Valley:

Merrick Butte

Merrick Butte




El Malpais National Monument

El Malpais National Monument

Eventually, I will share photos of some of the major stops I made on this two-week adventure.  But many of the memories are the smaller moments of each day, some that could not even be captured with a photo. For example, every morning as I left the Gallup hotel, there was a little sparrow in the tree by where I parked who sang good morning loud and clear.  But he was shy and never, ever let me capture his photo.  In fact, many birds and even some small animals kept me company along the road, but rarely let me take their pictures.  It is always a fun little game to try to catch them on film.

Some of these smaller memories I was able to preserve in photographs.

IMG_6906The promise of rain was a constant companion.  I was only ever really caught in a storm a couple of times, but the clouds were gorgeous almost every day.  One day, it even snowed on me in Santa Fe.  How cool is that?






Lilacs in a Back Yard in Gallup

Lilacs in a Back Yard in Gallup

Flowers were also plentiful.  They always brighten any day!  Some flowers were in the cities, like some gorgeous lilac bushes that made me think of my mom.  One stretch near Shiprock, Aizona, offered miles and miles of wildflowers lining the road.  Other times, wildflowers offered isolated splashes of color and beauty.

False Red Yucca (Hesperaloe), Las Vegas

False Red Yucca (Hesperaloe), Las Vegas

False Red Yucca Close Up

False Red Yucca Close Up

Some views around Shiprock, Arizona, mostly Desert Mallow:





Canyon de Chelly Roadside

Canyon de Chelly Roadside

Along the Verde River

Along the Verde River

Small Cactus Holding On Near Sedona

Small Cactus Holding On Near Sedona

Taking Root in Monument Valley

Taking Root in Monument Valley

Yucca in Bloom, Monument Valley

Yucca in Bloom, Monument Valley

Yucca Bloom Up Close

Yucca Bloom Up Close

Growing Out of Lava, Sunset Crater National Park

Growing Out of Lava, Sunset Crater National Park

Some Flowers in Petrified Forest National Park:

Desert Poppies

Desert Poppies

Indian Paintbrush Close Up

Indian Paintbrush Close Up

Common Name is Wild Apache Rose (I think)

Common Name is Wild Apache Rose (I think)

Apache Rose Close Up

Apache Rose Close Up

Shiprock National Monument in the Background

Shiprock National Monument in the Background

A few animals also cooperated as I traveled along, letting me catch them on film.  Horses wandered along the road at several locations.  Prairie Dogs were chittering alarms as I bounced along a gravel road traversing Valles Caldera National Preserve. Most scampered away, but eventually a few sentries came back to their posts.  I also shared shade with a little bunny on a break at the El Malpais National Conservation Area.

Prairie Dog, Valles Caldera National Preserve

Prairie Dog, Valles Caldera National Preserve

Near Canyon de Chelly

Near Canyon de Chelly

IMG_7152At one spot some sheep were literally running along the side of the road.  A ram was trailing behind, trying desperately—it seemed to me—to get back to the front of his little flock. That’s one of the hardest things about being a good leader—you need good followers!


This little trip confirmed for me that Nature and Solitude are great traveling companions!

Canyon de Chelly Rim Drive

Canyon de Chelly Rim Drive

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”  E. B. White

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”  Anne Frank

“If I were to name the three most precious resources of life, I should say books, friends, and nature; and the greatest of these, at least the most constant and always at hand, is nature.”  John Burroughs

“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.  This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”  Albert Einstein

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”  Paul Tillich

“We live in a very tense society.  We are pulled apart. . . . and we all need to learn how to pull ourselves together. . . . I think that at least part of the answer lies in solitude.”  Helen Hayes

“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.”  Lorraine Hansberry

“What a commentary on civilization, when being alone is being suspect; when one has to apologize for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it—like a secret vice.”  Anne Morrow Lindbergh

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”  John Muir

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”  Henry David Thoreau

Cloudy Skies


“Now, if God made the clouds so beautiful, did He not mean us to gaze upon them and be thankful for them?”  Alfred Rowland

Oh, I love clouds!


IMG_5508Clouds add beauty and majesty to any scene.  I recently took a road trip through the Southwest.  Some of my best memories are of the wondrous clouds that punctuated my drives along major and minor roadways.  I especially like when the cloudy sky takes over the scene, going on and on forever.  This is my first time responding to Jennifer’s One Word Photo Challenge.  This week’s theme is Cloudy, and you can see other entries here.

I have shared cloud images in the past here and here.





* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.”  Konrad Adenauer

“A cloudless plain blue sky is like a flowerless garden.”  Terri Guillemets

“When we look up, it widens our horizons.  We see what a little speck we are in the universe, so insignificant, and we all take ourselves so seriously, but in the sky, there are no boundaries. No difference of caste or religion or race.”  Julia Gregson

“Clouds on clouds, in volumes driven, curtain round the vault of heaven.”  Thomas Love Peacock

“These clouds are angels’ robes.”  Charles Kingsley


Another Hillerman Navajo Mystery!

tony hillermanI do not remember when I first read a mystery by Tony Hillerman, but it was probably in the mid to late 1980s.  I do remember that he quickly became one of my favorite authors, and I voraciously read all of his 18 novels* that feature Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, officers in the Navajo Tribal Police.  He died in 2008 at the age of 83, and it seemed the many adventures of Chee and Leaphorn were over as well.  Thus, realizing as I did over the holidays, that his daughter Anne had revived the characters in a new novel I was excited.  Reading that new mystery brought back all the reasons why I loved Hillerman’s work.

Two of My Interests Are Integral to the Core of Hillerman’s Mysteries

I have always been fascinated with tribal cultures since I was kid.  Back then, I liked Mingo better than Daniel Boone and Tonto better than the Lone Ranger.  I rooted for the Indians in most westerns, and one of my favorite shows was Broken Arrow (repeated on Sunday afternoons 1959-1960).  I applauded Dances with Wolves (1990) for giving a more thorough view of tribal life rather than just reactions to encroaching settlers, cowboys, and soldiers.  But I also knew I did not really know much about Indian Cultures then and now, even if I read Linda Eldridge’s The Round House (1988) and Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993).

Dance Hall of the DeadHillerman’s novels allowed me to come to know and understand his key Navajo characters, initially Joe Leaphorn, then Jim Chee, and finally Bernie Manuelito as well as numerous other more ancillary characters.  His works also immersed me into daily life on a reservation as well as the broader cultural and religious sensibilities of several tribes.  His main focus was always Navajo, but he also explored Zuni and Hopi characters, history and teachings.  I cannot claim to really know tribal culture from reading Hillerman’s novels, but I do have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the depth and complexity of Indian cultures and some key differences between tribes and the dominant white culture because of reading his novels.

Hillerman himself once explained both what he shared in his novels about the various tribes and why:  “It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures. I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.” Hillerman presented these lessons about tribal cultures through the characters he created, primary and secondary, Indian and White, good and bad on all sides—the complexity of living was always at the heart his characters.  The award he most prized and that impressed me since he is a white guy after all was being named Special Friend of the Dinee by the Navajo Nation (1987).

Drive to Albuqueque 060I have also always loved the landscapes and vistas of the Southwest, traveling there at least once a year through the 1990s.  I am rejuvenated by the sights and sounds of the deserts and mountains, overwhelmed at times by the vibrant colors, and awed by the isolation (not loneliness) of the area. I have visited the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Chaco Canyon, have smelled the rains and enjoyed the sunsets, have attended a Pow Wow in Gallup, and have driven through cities such as Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Shiprock, and Tuba City.  This area—this Indian Country that even has its own map from AAA—fascinates me, and I return there as often as I can just to experience the area.

desert sunrise

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

No wonder I like Hillerman’s novels.  This Four Corners Area is backdrop for all his mysteries.  But more than that:  this landscape is actually a unifying character of his mystery stories, as he calls his novels. Nature—the land, the weather, the isolation, the history—is an integral part of tribal life from the morning salutation to the sun and the sacred lands and stories to the celebrations and rituals that mark the passages of life and death for his characters.

Hillerman moves easily from descriptions of landscape into the actions and even the thinking of his characters; these descriptions help the readers stay immersed in the land that is such an integral part of tribal life.  Through nature descriptions it becomes clear that distance, silence, solitude, patience, waiting are as consistent and integral to life as are sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and dust storms.

Listening WomanThe simple act of waiting for rain captures the truth of living in the area but also how patience and expectation are just part of life. The following excerpt is from Listening Woman (1978):

“The thunderhead that promised a shower to Tuba Mesa in the morning had drifted eastward over the Painted Desert and evaporated—the promise unfulfilled.  Now another, taller thunderhead had climbed the sky to the north—over the slopes of Navajo Mountain in Utah. The color under it was blue-black, suggesting that on one small quadrant of mountainside the blessed rain was falling. Far to the southeast, blue and dim with distance, towering clouds had risen over the Chuskas on the Arizona-New Mexico border. There were other promising clouds to the south, drifting over the Hopi Reservation. The Hopis had held a rain dance Sunday, calling on the clouds—their ancestors—to restore the water blessing to the land.  Perhaps the kachinas had listened to their Hopi children. Perhaps not. It was not a Navajo concept, this idea of adjusting nature to human needs.  The Navajo adjusted himself to remain in harmony with the universe.  When nature withheld rain, the Navajo sought the pattern of this phenomenon—as he sought the pattern of all things—to find its beauty and live in harmony with it.” 

sacred clownsThis power of his landscapes is frequently noted when his work is reviewed.  In response to Sacred Clowns (1993), Newsweek concluded, “This is Hillerman at his best, mixing human nature, ethnicity, and the overpowering physical presence of the Southwest.” Or as the Denver Post said, “He makes the desert come alive.” Hillerman also acknowledged the importance of Nature, scenery, and landscape to his stories, but also how challenging it is to capture the truth about the area in words and even in photos. At least his many descriptions throughout his novels help readers see the land for more than just miles to drive through.

LandscapeIn Summer 2007, Hillerman wrote the introduction for his daughter’s book Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn.  He had encouraged her to capture in text and photos (by Don Strel) many of the vistas pertinent to his mysteries.  But he knew that capturing the true essence of the area is not really possible.  As he notes, “Alas, there isn’t a way to show in photographs the key cultural beliefs that made me rate traditional Navajos the world’s most humane culture.” 

In trying to explain the connection between the Navajos and their land, he told a story of the time in 1868 when they completed the Long Walk, trudging 300 miles in a little over a month to get back home.  Being released from forced captivity, the tribal leaders had been given the option to move to a place where the farming would be better, the desolation less, and presumably the life easier.  The Navajos wanted to go home.  He offers this conclusion to the story and to his introduction:

“One of the commanders of the Army troops who escorted the Navajos wrote about the moment in this report to Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman, who had headed the commission that freed the tribe from captivity: ‘We paused for a rest there, and when the Navajo saw their mountain on the western horizon, the whole column broke out in shouts and tears of joy.’  But how can you show that in a photograph?”

Quite Simply, Tony Hillerman Is a Terrific Story Teller

In more literary terms, Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels are well written and offer engaging action and suspense.  The dialog is always believable, and the action unfolds at a steady pace. Hillerman keeps on track with unraveling the mystery of the plot, but also adds in humor and a little romance to keep the stories from becoming lost in police procedures. He also offers some insightful commentary on the dominant white culture.  In this example from Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), he shares a comment on a typical worker, here represented as an FBI agent who typically does not like working with the tribal police:  “The FBI people always seemed to be O’Malleys–trimmed, scrubbed, tidy, able to work untroubled by any special measure of intelligence.”

The main stories are told with intricate detail, making the twists and turns seem logical and realistic. The thefts, crimes and murders of modern life are effectively balanced against tribal teachings and traditions, sings and celebrations.  Readers are as likely to be taken to an archeological dig, a traditional hogan, or the local trading post as they are to go on road trips to local cities or Washington D. C. and into meetings with FBI agents. The mystery and intrigue of each story keep the readers turning the pages, often staying up late just to see how things turn out.

skinwalkers filmFor me, the best thing about Hillerman’s mysteries are his believable and very likeable characters.  His first protagonist—eventually after some revision—was Joe Leaphorn.  This Indian has a masters in anthropology, so he understands but does not fully believe in the stories and teachings he was taught in his youth.  His attention to detail and his need to make connections and seek solutions make him a good cop.  [In the several films made of Hillerman’s novels, Wes Studi (in the sunglasses) does a remarkable job becoming Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Adam Beach plays Chee.]

People of DarknessJim Chee was introduced in Hillerman’s People of Darkness (1980).  In many ways, he served as a foil to Leaphorn.  Chee, as a younger more idealistic tribal officer, provides a nice counter balance to Leaphorn’s perspective on tribal teachings.  Chee truly values the ancient teachings and is training to be a singer or medicine man even as he works as a cop.  Through his voice, readers are offered deft comparisons between tribal life and the dominant culture represented by such things as big cities, wealth and success, and FBI agents.

In the later novels, readers meet Bernie Manuelito, a young Navajo woman seeking advancement in the tribal police, moving for a time to work for Border Patrol. These characters—and the other secondary characters who populate their world—seem very real. I not only care what happens to these people, but would like to sit and share a cup of coffee with them as well.

In really simple terms, Tony Hillerman is a great storyteller!  In these two videos, Hillerman talks about his storytelling and reads excerpts from some of his novels:

Tony_HillermanNot surprisingly, over the years, I made a point to read all of Hillerman’s novels. He was not as prolific as some writers, who churn out their tomes on a fairly quick schedule.  Some of Hillerman’s novels came out just one year apart, but often there were two to four years between books.  I got in the habit of watching for the next Hillerman novel to appear.  In 2008, upon his death, I was devastated at the loss of his talent, his humanity, but also at the thought of not seeing Leaphorn and Chee in action again.  For a short time, I still watched for a new novel, hoping that perhaps one had been in the works upon his death.  After several years, I stopped looking.

Anne Hillerman’s Mystery Spider Woman’s Daughter

Then, around Christmas 2014, I noticed that there was indeed another Hillerman novel featuring Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn, and Bernie Manuelito.  Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne wrote Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013.  I was thrilled but also a bit dubious.  Would she capture the balance of nature, character, action, and Indian culture that is such a trademark of her dad’s work?  Would the dynamics of the characters meet expectations for those of us who know and love the characters from the first 18 novels?

Apparently, Anne Hillerman was a bit hesitant about taking on the challenge of continuing her dad’s work as well, even though fans kept asking if there were remnants of his stories left to be published.  Finally, according to the acknowledgements at the end of her novel, she finally tackled the project with encouragement from fans as well as her dad’s editor.  As Anne notes, her mother also applauded her efforts:  “My mother, Marie Hillerman, continually encouraged me to write about the characters Dad created, assuring me that Tony would be happy to see them live on.”  At that point, Anne began three years of research to ensure she was as detailed and accurate about the landscape, the procedurals, the tribal culture, and the characters as her dad had always been.

spider woman's daughter coverWith the publication of her mystery Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman proved she did indeed get it right.  First, her protagonists are the characters her father had created.  Joe Leaphorn, now retired as he was at the end of her dad’s series, is still taking cases as a private investigator.  Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito both still work as Navajo Tribal Police, now as a married couple as they also were at the end of her dad’s series.  Their relationships and interactions seemed true to the characters, for the most part.  Chee says “darling” and “beautiful” to his wife a bit more than I would have expected, but heck they’ve been married for several years by now, so his past hesitant silences would have diminished over time.

The complicated relationship between Chee and Leaphorn–built on respect but also on the interaction between an elder supervisor and a younger subordinate–was evident and nicely explored.  Secondary characters were a good blend of characters from the past series and those new to this novel. Through the characters, the tribal culture and its past and present implications unfold, helping to move the story forward.  The family/tribal relationships as well as the importance of cultural artifacts play their part in solving the story’s mystery.

Anne Hillerman also uses Nature as a recurring backdrop for the story.  I like her dad’s descriptive flair a bit more than hers, but I expect that is partly a sense of familiarity with his presentations.  Anne’s descriptions evoke place as well as offer commentary on the characters and their actions.  Anne offers this description early in the novel as Bernie gets started in the investigation:

“Today, since she was starting from Window Rock, she took the quieter scenic route, which hugged the New Mexico-Arizona border, climbed over Narbona Pass, and then dropped into the open landscape of the reservation.  Normally she loved the panorama of scenery, the play of shadows along the Black Creek Valley a bit west of the sprawling town and the vast, empty country that stretched east—shades of brown, gold, and red meeting the dome of blue sky.  The cool ascent into the Chuska Mountains brought the vanilla fragrance of the ponderosas through her open window and, on a clear day, climaxed with a view of Dinetah from the top of the pass.  Today, though, instead of the beauty around her, she noticed how her old Tercel struggled with the climb to the summit.” 

In addition to the characters and her use of nature, Anne Hillerman also makes Spider Woman’s Daughter her own well-told story.  Her primary protagonist is Bernie, an independent tribal officer who is taking the lead on the investigation even as she has been told to take a few days off. For her dad, Bernie was a primary character, but the bulk of the story was never from her point of view.  For Anne Hillerman’s readers, through Bernie, they become aware of her roles as a young wife and a loving and devoted daughter and sister as much as her role as police officer.  Bernie’s family and work responsibilities and her need to balance the different demands they place on her expand the view of modern reservation life—and help solve the crime.

Anne Hillerman’s plot has two dominant threads:  the primary crime that assaults the reader in the first chapter as well as some relationship intrigues when Luisa (one her dad’s characters) seems to be missing in action.  Each thread keeps the readers curious enough to keep seeking resolution. There is also more deliberate attention to the relationships between the main characters and how those are better defined by the end of the novel—not strengthened really but made more obvious.

Anne Hillerman’s mystery is well written and serves as an excellent next mystery in the Navajo Mystery Series started by her dad over 40 years ago.  I expect her dad would applaud her efforts as well, given his love of storytelling as well as Indian culture.  If you have not yet read any of the Hillerman novels, I suggest you do.  You could really start anywhere to taste the flavor of the characters and culture that inhabits all 19 of the mysteries.

thieft in timeAnne Hillerman suggests that her dad’s A Thief of Time (1988) is a nice pairing with her novel because it served as a platform on which she built her story.  My advice would just be to pick a novel and get started reading.  As Tony Hillerman’s home state paper Oklahoma City Oklahoman says, “Readers who have not discovered Hillerman should not waste one minute more.”

Me?  Having finished Anne’s Hillerman’s mystery, I was reminded how much I really like these characters.  So now, I am re-reading Tony Hillerman’s mystery stories in order.  I am also pleased that I can once again expect another Hillerman mystery will surface starring Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernie Manuelito.  At least I hope Anne Hillerman will be writing some more mysteries in the years to come.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*The 19 Hillerman Mysteries

 Blessing Way, 1970

Dance Hall of the Dead, 1973

Listening Woman, 1978

People of Darkness, 1980

The Dark Wind, 1982

The Ghost Way, 1984

Skinwalkers, 1986  

A Thief of Time, 1988

Talking God, 1989

Coyote Waits, 1990

Sacred Clowns, 1993

The Fallen Man, 1997

The First Eagle, 1998

Hunting Badger, 1999

The Wailing Wind, 2002

The Sinister Pig, 2003

Skelton Man, 2004

The Shape Shifter, 2006

Spider Woman’s Daughter, 2103—by Anne Hillerman

 * * * * * * * * *

Marilyn Stasio’s NY Times article effectively reviewed Tony Hillerman’s life and work on his death in October 2008.  You can also learn more about him on Wikipedia.

Tag Cloud