Literary Techniques

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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...

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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

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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 police procedural, to name only a few. How should this novel, then, be categorized? Should it be categorized at all?

5. Leaphorn spends the entire novel searching for a Navajo boy he never really finds. What does this say about the duty of the Navajo policeman?

6. Describe the character of Suzanne, of the Golden Fleece commune. Does Hillerman portray her as a positive or negative character? Why do you think so?

7. What is Dr. Chester Reynolds' essential failing? What is Hillerman saying about the human condition in general with this character?

8. The reader never really encounters George Bowlegs except through the eyes of other characters. What does the reader learn about Bowlegs in this way? Why do you think Hillerman limits the experience of the reader in this way?

Social Concerns

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As in Tony Hillerman's earlier Joe Leaphorn novel, The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead stresses the importance of cultural identification to the establishment of a complete individual identity. George Bowlegs, who never appears directly in the novel, is between cultures himself, attempting to leave his Navajo traditions behind in favor of the belief system of the Zuni people. Being "between cultures," as it were, Bowlegs has no personal identity as Hillerman sees it—although Bowlegs recognizes this and is attempting to remedy the situation—and therefore cannot personally appear in the novel. Joe Leaphorn, on the other hand, although having been exposed to white Anglo culture at Arizona State University and to many cultures through his study of anthropology there, has consciously chosen to follow the Navajo Way, and thus appears as a complete, mature, and sympathetic character to the reader.

Akin to the question of culture is the problem of racism, which so often appears when and where two or more cultures meet. In this case, the problem appears primarily in Leaphorn himself, demonstrating both the depth of Leaphorn's characterization as well as the fact that not even the most sympathetic and heroic of Hillerman's characters can avoid the foibles common to the human race. Leaphorn, having developed the prejudice that the Zuni believe themselves superior to the Navajo after spending a year rooming with a Zuni during his freshman year at Arizona State, recognizes such feelings as a personal defect, and struggles to overcome them—more or less successfully, it would appear—in his own Navajo quest to live in harmony with all things.

Additionally, Hillerman stresses the importance of individual choice of a belief system over the actual tenants of that system. Although clearly admiring the Navajo ideal of living in harmony with all, Hillerman does not present the Navajo Way as the only acceptable way of life. Suzanne is presented as a positive character because, although she has rejected Anglo culture in general and, later, has been in turn rejected by the Golden Fleece commune, she cares for and about other human beings, reflecting her own desire to live in harmony with them. George Bowlegs, although seemingly impractical and perhaps impetuous, also appears in a positive light because he seeks to adopt a culture to replace the Navajo traditions that were never truly taught to him by his dysfunctional family and therefore hold no value for him. Bowlegs, at least, recognizes the absence of that culture, and seeks to find his place.

Bibliography

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Bulow, Ernie. Talking Mysteries: A Conversation with Tony Hillerman. Gallup, N.Mex.: Southwestern Books, 1989.

Erisman, Fred. Tony Hillerman. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989.

Greenberg, Martin. The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Hillerman, Tony. Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Reilly, John M. Tony Hillerman: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Literary Precedents

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Hillerman's novels fit into so many traditional sub-categories of detective fiction that he becomes almost impossible to classify in such terms. Ethnic detectives like Chee and Leaphorn have appeared in the earliest detective fiction, as Edgar Allan Poe's protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, was a Frenchman living in Paris, and his other major detective figure, Legrand, is a displaced Huguenot living in South Carolina. As an ethnic detective writer, Hillerman belongs in the same category as Australian Arthur Upfield, whose works featuring half- Aborigine half-Anglo Napoleon Bonaparte apparently influence some of Hillerman's writing. Bonaparte also must work in relatively isolated areas—many even largely and more sparsely populated than the "Big Reservation." Like Bonaparte, Chee and Leaphorn also hark back to the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper and others, in which the hero finds himself struggling between the opposing cultures and values of civilization and the "wilderness." Obviously, this same struggle can be seen in much Western literature as well, as in the works of Louis L'Amour. This last connection may, in fact, be the strongest, as detective literature in general has often been linked with the traditions of the American Western, and Hillerman's work is set in the American Southwest. However, his work also includes aspects of the police procedural, the ethnography, the hard-boiled detective novel, the religious detective, and the suspense novel or "thriller."

Adaptations

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Audio Partners Publishing Corporation published a two-cassette version of Dance Hall of the Dead, read by Michael Ansara, in 1989. Books on Tape, Incorporated published a six-cassette version of Dance Hall of the Dead in 1994.

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