Fallen Man Themes
Hillerman works through three important themes in the novel. The first of these is indicated in the title, Fallen Man. Two men fall in the novel, Hal Breedlove, who fell to his death a decade earlier, and Eldon Demott, who leaps to his death near the novel's conclusion. The term "fallen," however, refers not only to the physical events. It also refers to the theological concept of the fallen condition of the human being due to the sin of Adam and Eve. Both Hal and Eldon lived in a kind of paradise, the Lazy B ranch, which they each loved in their own way. Both fell from grace and could no longer enjoy the property. Hal did so by attempting to destroy the ranch by selling its mineral rights in order to make enough money to maintain a lavish life style filled with personal airplanes and expensive cars. The cost of maintaining this style of living was the destruction of "paradise" by means of strip mining the mountains and polluting its creek. Eldon, on the other hand, in his attempts to keep the ranch pure, left Hal to die of exposure on a ledge near the top of Ship Rock and murdered Austin Maryboy to cover up this fact. His choice was either to go to jail or to jump to his death, and, unable to face life without the freedom the ranch offered, he chose the latter.
A second theme concerns the difference between white and Navajo values. As in his previous Navajo mysteries, Hillerman expresses respect for the traditional Navajo way of life. Unlike Hal Breedlove and his father, who are ambitious and willing to destroy the land by overgrazing and mining it for profit, Navajos consider the land holy. Hosteen Sam, for instance, wants to protect Ship Rock, a holy place, from the damage that white mountain climbers inflict on it, and Joe Leaphorn expresses sympathy to the environmental arguments concerning land maintenance. Navajos view the land as filled with spirits and therefore attempt to protect it from white greed.
The most direct exploration of the difference between whites and Navajos takes place in the relationship between Chee and Janet Pete. Chee has long loved Pete and wants her to marry him and settle on the Reservation to live a traditional Navajo life. Unlike Chee, who grew up on the Reservation, Pete has been formed by white culture, a fact that Chee has a hard time accepting. Since she is half Navajo on her father's side, he assumes that she should share his Navajo heritage; it should be in her blood. But he comes to realize that she does not share, or even appreciate, his culture because her culture is different. Pete's, Chee reflects, is "blue-blooded, white, Ivy League, chic, irreligious, old-rich Maryland," not the Navajo culture in which he was raised. As Pete herself admits, "My culture is Stanford sorority girl, Maryland cocktail circuit, Mozart, and tickets to the Met". Pete, unlike Chee, is ambitious and aspires to a life in a sophisticated city, a stellar legal career, and a Porsche in her garage. Being formed by traditional Navajo culture, Chee embraces the Navajo suspicion of ambition. Chee remembers a friend who stopped winning rodeo competitions because his success was making him "unhealthily famous and therefore out of harmony". Chee himself views ambition and the accumulation of wealth not as a sign of success but as a sign of not taking care of one's family, of keeping too much for oneself. Wealth and the fame that comes with it do not interest him. "Win three races in a row," he tells Pete, "you better slow down a little. Let someone else win" the prize. Pete's response is that such attitudes would not get one into law school or out of poverty.
A related theme is the difference between Navajo and white senses of justice. Navajo justice is not based on the principles of punishment or revenge. Instead, Navajos view crime as the fall into chaos, justice as the return to harmony. Justice for them is a flexible concept. As Chee tells Pete, if a drunken driver hits a Navajo, the Navajo doesn't sue. Instead, he or she holds a sing to cure the driver of alcoholism and to reestablish harmony. Whites in the novel, on the other hand, view justice as absolute and fixed. The Breedlove Corporation, for instance, is anxious to prove that Hal Breedlove died before his thirtieth birthday, the age at which he could legally inherit the ranch. If he died at twenty-nine and therefore never legally owned it, the corporation could take his widow to court to sue her to reclaim the ranch and then profit from selling the mineral rights to a mining company. When Leaphorn discovers that Hal did actually die before reaching thirty, he finds himself in a dilemma. If he tells the Breedlove Corporation, who has hired him to find the truth, what actually happened, the land will be destroyed and Hal's widow, whom Leaphorn respects, will lose her home. Although far more influenced by white thinking than Chee is, Leaphorn makes a Navajo decision. To allow Breedlove's widow to remain the ranch's owner and to protect the land from mining, he decides to hide the true date of Hal's death from his employers and to reestablish harmony. When Demott asks if Chee, whom Demott has shot, will support this undermining of white justice, Leaphorn replies that Chee is an authentic Navajo who strives not for revenge but harmony.