Tony Hillerman knew New Mexico

When I heard that Tony Hillerman had died Sunday at 83, I felt that stone-heaviness of grief, as if he were a beloved great-uncle. I felt regret, like I'd never gotten to say goodbye or even offer a thank you for all that he gave me. Gone was a positive influence in my life, someone who had helped me grow up and become a writer.

Considering that I never actually met Hillerman, this needs some explaining.

As a teenager growing up in rural New Mexico, I'd hole up with "The Blessing Way" or "The Dance Hall of the Dead," pretending to be sick to escape the misery of high school and spend the day instead with Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police.

My mother probably realized I was faking but she, too, was a huge Hillerman fan; besides, she likely thought I'd learn more about grammar, anthropology, history and logic by reading than sitting in a classroom. Over the years, I must have read both those books half a dozen times.

They, of course, are just good old nail-biting whodunits, but even when I knew how the stories ended, I enjoyed going back and revisiting the world-weary Leaphorn, seeing scenes play out in my head, trying to figure out where exactly Hillerman slipped in the first clue to the murder. In Hillerman's books, I found more than entertainment; I found reassurance that someone else had the same experience of the world as I did.

A difficult place

New Mexico indeed is the "Land of Enchantment," a tourist bureau's dream with picturesque sunsets, colorful balloon fiestas, real cowboys and Indians, and quaint old towns that look almost too photogenic to be real. Beneath all this, I knew it as a place of profound paradox -- stunning vistas and nuclear bombs, unique cultural traditions and bone-crushing poverty, racial blending and murderous violence.

Looking at the slick cover images on New Mexico Magazine, or hearing visitors say, "New Mexico is so spiritual and such a healing place," I'd think I was missing something.

But Hillerman's stories reassured me that I wasn't crazy. He saw it too. In an essay in David Muench's photo book "New Mexico," he writes about the state as a place influenced by "edges" that overlap -- the mountain and desert climates, the cultures of the Spanish, the Anglo and the tribal forces of the Navajo, the Pueblos and Apache. His books about Leaphorn and, later, detective Jim Chee, may have been fiction, but I knew he was speaking in code about the way things really were.

Yes, New Mexico is this beautiful and this ethereal, and it is also this dangerous and this mean.

"Enchantment" denotes a spell cast, and if you grow up around people who whisper about Santeria and skinwalkers and kachinas, you know that's not something to take lightly. Hillerman's writing was all the more powerful because he, like me, had been born elsewhere -- he was an Okie from a hamlet called Sacred Heart.

Those were accidents of birth, however. I imagined Hillerman felt as I did; we were always New Mexicans, a spell that, once cast, you cannot shake. Hillerman once said in an interview that the first time he pulled up to a trading post and saw elderly Navajos sitting on the bench outside, he felt "right at home."

Like my actual great-uncles, he had served as an infantryman in World War II. And, like my uncles also, he had killed in combat, a fact about which he was taciturn and stoic.

He had been severely wounded, and often talked about traveling through New Mexico after the war with two fellow soldiers who were Navajos, and coming upon tribe members conducting an Enemy Way ceremony to cleanse another soldier of his service. These images stayed with him, influencing his work.

Yet it seems to me his direct experience of pain, of fear and suffering, of brutality and survival, influenced his work even more. Hillerman always gave his characters the complexity of their humanity, good or bad. They may have been fictional creations, but their substance was real. It was life, it was messy. Hillerman respected the humanity of his characters just as he respected the intelligence and life experience of his readers. And it seems to me that such compassion -- because that's what it is -- is always gained at the price of tough life experience.

One more thing: I didn't appreciate this for a long while. After high school, I buried my love of Leaphorn and Chee. I was trying to be an intellectual, you see. College and all. Reading literature, don't you know? Stories about people in Connecticut, boys at boarding school, Borges and Camus. I hung out in New York and tried to be one of the literati.

I was as embarrassed of Hillerman as I was of my own family.

Rediscovering him

It took my own failings, moral dilemmas and pain to embrace where I came from -- Hillerman included. And now he is gone, and I can only hope what any writer hopes: not only to write one thing that will matter half as much to one reader as Hillerman's many works have mattered to millions, but to write with the kind of compassion and respect he did. And gratitude.

He called his memoir "Seldom Disappointed" after a saying his mother had: "Blessed are those who expect little. They are seldom disappointed." He wrote, "Looking back at life, I find I have often received more than I ever expected and suffered less than my share of disappointments."

Thank you, Tony Hillerman.

Samantha Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation." Freelance writer Dick Kurth contributed research to this piece.

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