To a degree, Tony Hillerman's writing style resembles Hemingway's, in that he includes relatively few adjectives and adverbs, preferring to deal with more solid nouns and verbs. Also like Hemingway, Hillerman is a European war veteran whose style developed, in part, from his thirty year career as a reporter and news editor, as well as additional years of teaching journalism at the University of New Mexico. Thus, his descriptions of setting in Dance Hall of the Dead include much rich, realistic detail, but also serve to further the plot and/or characterization of the novel.
Consistent with his other works, Hillerman uses the awe-inspiring landscape of the American Southwest almost as a character in Dance Hall of the Dead. Hillerman describes many of the Native American characters as being in harmony with the land, as he does when Joe Leaphorn is able to analyze deer migration patterns to track George Bowlegs, who he assumes will follow the deer because, as a fellow Navajo, Bowlegs should be able himself to track the same deer as a source of food. Moreover, the Golden Heece commune, consisting of whites, did not share this harmony with the land, and ruined some sheep grazing land as well as a water source. They learned, however, from these experiences, and have come into greater unity with their surroundings—and with their Navajo neighbors—as a result. Significantly, Dr. Reynolds defiles the land itself, planting artifacts deep within the earth to "seed" an archeological dig site, in his pursuit of selfish gain.
Hillerman's inclusion of detailed information regarding Native American traditions, beliefs and culture serves to promote what Hillerman himself described in an interview for Writer's Digest (Jan. 2000) as a "priority"; that is, to "force the reader to attend a Native ceremony or get involved in the religious tradition in order to follow the plot." In the case of Dance Hall of the Dead, Hillerman's plot revolves around the Shalako ceremony of the Zuni people. Any mystery reader hopes, with the detective, to solve the crime described in the novel, and the reader must understand both the legend behind this Zuni ceremony and its purpose in order to understand what motivates George Bowlegs, the Navajo youth Joe Leaphorn seeks. Leaphorn's understanding of these Zuni beliefs allows him to track Bowlegs both on his quest for a sacred lake and back to the Zuni village in time for the main ceremony itself.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Hillerman demonstrates the essential conflict between individual desire and societal and cultural limits in Dance Hall of the Dead, as he does in much of his other work as well. He often portrays individual decisions as wrong—or at least misguided— but generally seems to allow cultures as diverse as the Golden Fleece commune, the Navajo people, the Zuni people, and Anglo- American society to choose whatever rules by which they desire to live. Cultural differences, always a source of tension in Hillerman's fiction, become resolved only through individual commitment and resolve.
1. Hillerman presents many of his characters in pairs—there are two Federal officers involved in the case, two Native American officers, two commune members treated in any detail, two archeologists, two young boys murdered, etc. Choose any such pairing and compare and contrast the two characters involved. Why does Hillerman pair up his characters in this way?
2. Discuss the competing law enforcement jurisdictions as Hillerman describes them. Does the author include this merely for the sake of narrative realism, or is there more that he seems to be trying to say?
3. Books on Tape, in publishing an audio version of this novel in 1994, described it in part as being about "the strange laws of the Zuni Indians." Is this an apt description of the novel? Do you think Hillerman would describe the novel in this way?
4. Hillerman combines elements of several forms of detective fiction in Dance Hall of the Dead, including ethnic fiction, hard-boiled detective fiction, and the...
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