Literary Techniques

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Hillerman often highlights the long history of the Native American cultures that inhabit the southwest setting of the novel by describing the effects of the long passage of time on the landscape. These same descriptions, admirable examples of Hillerman's craft in their own right, also point to the apparent difference...

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Hillerman often highlights the long history of the Native American cultures that inhabit the southwest setting of the novel by describing the effects of the long passage of time on the landscape. These same descriptions, admirable examples of Hillerman's craft in their own right, also point to the apparent difference in significance between man and nature—if nature, being so large and diverse, can remain in harmony with itself, there exists a certain irony in the fact that humanity so often can remain in harmony neither with itself nor with nature. In fact, setting almost takes on the role of another character, albeit a whimsical one, the dry climate sometimes aiding in Leaphorn's tracking, the rain at other times washing away what could be important clues.

Hillerman generally shows, rather than tells. He never seems "teachy" or "preachy" in his writing, and therefore his writing appeals to a broader audience of readers unlikely to read about Native American culture in anthropological or ethnographical texts. Generally, Hillerman provides very little explanation of the various cultural aspects that occur in The Blessing Way, assuming that a reasonably intelligent reader will pay close enough attention to the text to understand at least the broad points necessary to follow the plot. As Joe Leaphorn himself is often learning about the culture along with the reader, this technique both piques reader interest and curiosity while at the same time enabling the reader to identify more closely with the protagonist.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Hillerman's interest in the American Southwest, an area of vast differences in climate, topography, and culture, evidences itself clearly in The Blessing Way, as well as in much of his other work. Much of his writing seems to involve his own working out of the essential conflict between the need for harmony and the need to choose between competing cultures. Throughout his writing, however, wherever Hillerman is critical, it is of individual choices, rarely of cultural values.

1. Many people might agree with the statement that only when an individual becomes comfortable within his or her own culture can the effort be made to understand and accept other cultures. Does Hillerman seem to agree or disagree with this statement?

2. George "Big Navajo" Jackson has been raised apart from his people, and has therefore not learned the Navajo Way. Is it this separation from "The People" that is to be blamed for his criminal behavior, or something else? Has Jackson embraced Anglo culture, or is he without a culture?

3. Hillerman combines aspects of the police procedural, the hard-boiled detective novel, the western, the frontier novel and the ethnography, to name only some, in The Blessing Way. How should this novel be categorized? Is such categorization important? Why?

4. At the climax of the novel, Bergen McKee finds himself isolated and outnumbered, with a potential love interest about whom he feels protective. He has virtually no tools or weapons at his disposal. What does McKee's reaction to this situation say about Hillerman's definition of manhood? Is McKee's near fatal wounding significant?

5. What is Ellen Leon's role in the novel? Is she essentially passive, or naive, or something else? Does her character develop during the course of the novel? If so, how?

6. One of Hillerman's most important themes is alienation, and each of the four major male characters is the novel— Leaphorn, McKee, Jackson, and Horseman—appears alienated from his own culture in some way. What brings this alienation about in each of these character's lives, and how does it affect them?

7. How does Hillerman's inclusion of traditional Navajo beliefs add to the story? Would a greater understanding of these beliefs on the part of the reader add to, or detract from, the reading of the novel?

8. McKee has killed two men during the course of the novel, but only in fact, not "officially." Should McKee stand trial for the deaths of these two men? What does Leaphorn's agreement to conceal McKee's involvement in these deaths say about his abilities or interests as a law enforcement officer?

9. How is American government portrayed in The Blessing Way? What, if anything, does Hillerman seem to be saying about government in general?

10. Tony Hillerman has stated that he works "from the presumption that people buy mysteries for entertainment" (The Armchair Detective). Nonetheless, his novels clearly attempt to inform, even to persuade, as well as simply to entertain. Is such a use of the mystery genre honest, or should the author inform his readers of agenda if he has one of which he is aware?

Social Concerns

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Tony Hillerman, born and raised among Native Americans in Oklahoma, claims to have read practically everything ever written about Navajo history, and to have learned even more about the culture and tradition of "The People" through his years of friendship and interaction with Navajos in New Mexico, where he now lives. His inclusion of effective detail regarding Navajo culture throughout The Blessing Way leads one to believe these claims readily. Hillerman addresses the concerns of the Navajo in particular, and the Native American in general, from a vantage point unattainable, or at least unattained, by most other Anglo Americans. That Navajo Law and Order Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn can successfully operate among a variety of cultures, including white, Hispanic, Navajo, and other Native Americans, indicates Hillerman's optimistic view that a variety of cultures can peacefully, even profitably, co-exist.

As The Blessing Way makes obvious, Hillerman is concerned about the loss of the Navajo culture and way of life as more and more Navajos become increasingly assimilated into the dominant Anglo culture. Although he carefully avoids over-sentimentality concerning this loss, Hillerman demonstrates the preferability of the old ways over the new in numerous places throughout the text. As with most detective fiction, the detective favors the conservative aspects of society, seeking only to restore the status quo, rather than make any fundamental changes to that society. However, with only a few minor exceptions, Hillerman does not portray the Anglo way of life as wrong or evil; rather, he simply seems to wish that multiple cultures could more successfully co-exist.

Closely related to his concern with preserving culture is Hillerman's concern with racism. Lieutenant Leaphorn has studied anthropology at college, and, in a sense, his work in law enforcement continues that study. His characters generally engage in no overt displays of racist language, and Hillerman thus demonstrates the often subtle nature of prejudice and its effects on interpersonal relationships—particularly in terms of exploitation and general distrust of others, both of which evidence themselves in George "Big Navajo" Jackson's use of the Navajo Wolf legends to frighten Navajos from the site of his work. This distrust also appears, for example, in questions of legal jurisdiction, which is so complicated on and near the reservation that cases are often dismissed due to a total inability to determine under what law a matter should be tried. Hillerman, a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian, thus pits individuals (usually Native American) against the system (usually portrayed as white) and even demonstrates the futility and the foolishness of the system by pitting it against itself.

Literary Precedents

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One might say that, as an "ethnic detective," Joe Leaphorn traces his roots all the way back to the first detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe's tales of ratiocination featuring the French detective C. Auguste Dupin. However, Joe Leaphorn brings cultural understanding to the law enforcement profession in a much more realistic and meaningful manner than did Poe's Frenchman or, say, than Earl Derr Biggers' detective Charlie Chan brought any type of Asian sensibility to the job of solving crimes. Nonetheless, Hillerman certainly follows in the footsteps of such ethnic detective writers as Biggers or the more critically acclaimed Arthur Upfield or Chester Himes.

But Hillerman has combined elements of many genres and sub-genres in his fiction. Certainly, by setting his story against the backdrop of the Southwest and including such themes as survival against the odds in the wild, Hillerman borrows from both the western novel of such writers as Louis L'Amour and the frontier novel of James Fenimore Cooper and the like. As a detective and suspense writer, Hillerman clearly follows in the footsteps of such authors as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and Raymond Chandler, all of whom he cited as influences in a 1987 interview with The Armchair Detective. Joe Leaphorn, however, is more complex than many of his detective predecessors due to his dual heritage and its impact on his working environment, particularly his metaphysical approach to the world (by which Hillerman might also be read as a "religious detective" writer such as G. K. Chesterson or E. V. Cunningham). Moreover, his work often resembles the police procedural as popularized by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), particularly as it refers to jurisdictional disagreements and the involvement of the personal life of Leaphorn (such as his relationship with McKee and his own Navajo upbringing) in his professional life.

Adaptations

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HarperCollins published an abridged version of The Blessing Way, read by the author, on two cassette tapes in 1989 and Harper Audio reissued the set in 1990.

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