Book of the Month

~by Michele Gregoire

July 2015 Review: Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn, by Anne Hillerman, Photographs by Don Strel.

What a lovely book Anne Hillerman has written to honor her father and his writing! Tony Hillerman is one of the finest mystery writers and a long-time favorite of mine, who skillfully uses the landscape and natural surroundings as ‘characters’ in his novels. His human characters, though all fictional, truly represent the Native American tribes – primarily Navajo but with Zuni and Hopi as well – to which they belong. The reader learns much authentic factual information, about the Navajo particularly, in each of his books. Tony Hillerman passed away in October of 2008, and the world lost a very special writer, but more importantly, his family lost their husband, father, and grandfather. In a memorial tribute to her father, Anne Hillerman along with her husband, Don Strel, created this unique book, published in 2009, that takes descriptive segments from his novels which give details about the landscapes of New Mexico and Arizona where his characters live (also the Hillerman’s home), and pairs them with photos of the places described in the books.

Tony Hillerman’s Landscape consists of 15 chapters with a Foreword by the President of the Navajo Nation, Dr. Joe Shirley, Jr., an Introduction by Tony Hillerman (written in 2007), and an Afterword also by Tony Hillerman, written in 2006 for an anthology about why writers live where they do, a book that was never published. Interspersed throughout the chapters are Hillerman’s own comments about his writing of each novel, giving insight into how he wrote and where he got his ideas. The first chapter is a biographical recollection from Anne Hillerman of her life. This provides an opportunity to know something about her as a writer and to get a glimpse of growing up the daughter of Tony Hillerman. She describes several experiences with her father – talks he’s given about his writing, family car trips after Sunday mass to appreciate the scenery, and stories from his own life, for example. One of the very special attributes of Anne’s writing is her references to the family’s Catholicism, always an integral and important focus of her father’s life.

The chapters are organized chronologically around each novel, beginning with his first published in 1970 (The Blessing Way), and proceed in that manner, except for chapters six and seven. In those two chapters three books are discussed together because of a common theme. In Chapter Six are “The Hopi Books,” which focus on this tribe, and Chapter Seven, “Indian Country and Beyond,” takes the characters away from their local reservation area for much of the action. However, each of these fourteen chapters begins with a synopsis of the story, facts of interest regarding the book, and comments by Tony Hillerman from his 2001 memoir, Seldom Disappointed. These are particularly interesting because the author speaks about his writing process and the reader learns how he approached his craft while also getting to know the person of Tony Hillerman. Then, selected excerpts from the books describe specific places in each novel, which are expounded upon by the author, Anne Hillerman. Photographs, by Anne’s husband Don Strel, of the geography and/or settings referred to in each chapter are included and these give the reader helpful perspective on the importance of the desert places described in each story. It’s nice to see visual depictions of the actual places, but Tony Hillerman has done such a masterful job of describing the landscape and scenery in every one of his novels that the photos seem to simply validate the imagery he created for the reader. Reading Tony Hillerman’s Landscape makes me want to re-read all of his books yet again. Fortunately, Anne has taken up his characters and has now written two mysteries that continue the Chee-Leaphorn stories, while developing the female police protagonist who becomes Chee’s wife, Bernadette Manuelito. So these characters continue to live in her fiction. As a journalist and writer for many years Anne Hillerman has followed in her father’s footsteps and hopefully will continue her fiction stories.

One of the most touching scenes is in the first chapter when Anne describes being with her dad during his last days of life. An excerpt from Dance Hall of the Dead (published in 1973) relates the monsters that brought death to the Diné (the Navajo name for themselves) spared Sa, “so those who are worn out and tired with age can die to make room for others being born.” The author stated: “Like any child whose parent dies, I wish Dad and I had more time together. But I saw that, supported by his deep Catholic faith, he faced death as friend, with no hesitation. When Sa came that Sunday afternoon, my father welcomed him. He was ready for what he often called ‘the next great adventure’.”

Anne Hillerman has created a legacy for her father that presents him as a gift to all her readers. I find the book resonates with me on a number of levels. It helps me know Tony Hillerman better, beyond just reading and relishing his stories, and gives special insight into the novels I have come to know so well. But that which especially makes me feel a kinship with him is his Catholicism. He clearly lived a life of faith, and he never degraded his writing with anything tawdry or immoral. His stories are clean, his characters modest and completely engaging. Anne’s love of her dad shines through beautifully in this book and it is clear in reading this memoir that she has written a very special tribute to him. I wholeheartedly recommend Tony Hillerman’s Landscape. Whether or not you have read a single book of his, you will certainly feel well acquainted with a most notable Catholic writer, of fiction and nonfiction, after enjoying Anne Hillerman’s distinctive memoir.

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

Visit Michele’s BOOK OF THE MONTH ARCHIVE

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