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My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, June 13, 2022

June 13, 2022: Revisiting Beach Reads: Tony Hillerman

[I can’t lie, I haven’t had time to read for pleasure during this academic year, so I don’t have a ton of new recs for this year’s Beach Reads series. So I wanted to revisit authors and books I’ve read on the beach over my life—and to ask for your own recommendations for a crowd-sourced weekend post we can all throw in the beach bag!]

On a great mystery series that captures the lure of the Southwest, then and now.

There were a lot of reasons why Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park stood out to me among the many amazing stops on my family’s 1990 trip to visit Southwestern National Parks. Exploring thousand year old cliff dwellings, hiking out to the site of long-preserved petroglyphs, surprising a lone coyote at a sunset ruin—these are the kinds of experiences that will hit a 13 year old AmericanStudier in a particular way. But perhaps the most alluring aspect of Mesa Verde is its central mystery: the question of why the Anasazi people abruptly abandoned their cliff dwellings less than a century into their time there, and what happened to them after their departure. Archaeologists and historians have a variety of theories, but to some degree the Anasazi’s fate will always remain a mystery—and will thus keep young AmericanStudiers (and all the rest of us) coming back to Mesa Verde.

Even without an event as striking as the Anasazi’s departure, the dominant features of the Southwest’s human landscape—villages atop isolated mesas, dwellings in the sides of gaping canyons, petroglyphs carved in the rock and sand—lend themselves nicely to the mysteriously inclined. No one capitalized on that element more fully, nor more effectively, than Tony Hillerman, the University of New Mexico journalism professor who wrote (among his more than 30 total books) a series of 18 phenomenal mysteries focused on Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I may be misremembering for dramatic effect, but I’m pretty sure I was reading one of the best novels in the series, A Thief of Time (1988), during that family National Park vacation—and I know that I won’t ever think of New Mexico’s canyons and ruins without thinking of how Hillerman captures them in the hugely atmospheric, spooky, and pitch-perfect opening to that novel.

Hillerman and his Navajo mysteries (as they’re usually collectively known) also interestingly complement another Southwestern writer about whom I’ve written in this space: Mary Hunter Austin. An Oklahoma native and decorated World War II veteran, Hillerman moved to New Mexico for his UNM job and, like Austin, found himself more and more deeply interested in and attached to the region and its histories, cultures, and communities. (As he chronicles in his wonderful memoir.) While I can’t say for sure how the Navajo felt about Hillerman’s books, from everything I have seen they recognized, as I believe would any reader, that Hillerman treated his focal cultures and communities with the same abiding respect and admiration he did his protagonist policemen and the landscapes they patrolled. Perhaps the one thing that links the many different Southwestern authors and artists about whom I’ve blogged over the years is how much they found themselves drawn to the Southwest—to its places, to its histories, and, certainly, to its very American stories.

Next Beach Read tomorrow,


PS. You know what to do—share Beach Read recs for the weekend post, please!

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