Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
The novel's central theme as well as its genre-specific device is detection, the discovery of answers to deep, puzzling, and important questions. But it is not merely the device with which to develop a formulaic "mystery" novel. Because it stems from a powerful and compelling human characteristic, the desire to learn, to solve a problem, to reach a goal, it constitutes a powerful thematic core of the novel. It is enacted in three modes that interweave effectively to create an effective and compelling structure. They are, first, the scientific search to discover ways to defeat the new super microbes that literally threaten all mankind; second, the police search for the murderer of Officer Kinsman and for the missing Catherine Pollard; and third, the search by both Chee and Leaphorn for love and companionship.
The first of these clustered "detection" themes in The First Eagle involves the search by "the dedicated scientist," Dr. Albert Woody, for the details of how certain individuals in a "reservoir" rodent population are able to evolve a natural immunity to Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague. In his noble quest to "save all mankind from the little beasties," Woody becomes convinced that his motives justify everything he does. He apparently has little hesitation in murdering two individuals who obstruct his scientific quest as well as sacrificing his assistant and, finally, even himself to his noble quest. Centered in the corrupting power of ambition and money as well as the paradox of noble motives leading to immoral acts, this theme resonates throughout literature and achieves here a vigorous and satisfying embodiment that lifts Hillerman's writing above the merely generic.
The second form of the theme of detection involves the police search for the murderer of Officer Kinsman and for the missing person, Catherine Pollard. At first Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee believes that he has captured the killer literally "red-handed" in the form of Robert Jano, a young Hopi who was attempting to capture an eagle required for a Hopi ceremonial. But here, as in the final formulation of the theme of detection, Chee is looking for a solution in the wrong places. First of all, Jano denies his involvement. Second, because of its personal connection to the third form of the detection theme, this major portion of the plot involves Chee's developing, albeit reluctantly, information that leads him and Leaphorn to the actual murderer—thus bringing this embodiment of the detection into alignment with its other two forms.
The third form of the theme of detection involves the search by both Chee and Leaphorn for love and companionship. Chee feels that he has been betrayed once by Janet Pete, a "mixed blood" Navajo with whom he had a serious relationship, perhaps even been engaged. Pete is an elegant young professional woman, more at home in the urban excitement of Washington D.C. than the lonely spaces of the reservation. She is brilliant and ambitious, eager to rise in the Justice Department. Chee, on the other hand, although educated at the University of Arizona, works hard to return to his traditional roots, even to the point of learning to perform such traditional Navajo healing ceremonies as the Blessing Way. Despite her earlier treatment of him, Chee is excited as well as apprehensive when he learns that Pete is coming back to the area as the defender of Jano. His lingering doubts about the trustworthiness of his feelings for Pete are resolved just as his convictions of Jano's guilt are dissolved. At the end of the novel it becomes apparent that Chee has been "looking for love in all the wrong places," ignoring the admiration of fellow Officer Bernadette Manuelito .
In a similar fashion, the senior and now former member of this duo of Navajo Tribal Police, Joe Leaphorn, is discovering again the delights of a wise and caring female companion in the form of Dr. Louisa Bourbonette, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona State University. In this developing relationship, the detection theme works itself out in at least two ways. First, Leaphorn discovers that, while his love for his late wife Emma, taken from him when a brain tumor required a risky operation, is undiminished, sharing his efforts to find Pollard with Louisa is satisfying and gives him hope. After a period of prolonged mourning, Leaphorn is discovering again that it is not good for man to be alone. Each of these four individuals discovers the need for love, companionship, and connection, rendering them well developed characters.
Several other themes emerge from the actions, thoughts, and speech of the characters. The dilemma that Jim Chee faces in his pursuit of Janet Pete, involves the conflicts between values of several sorts. Urban money and position oppose rural space and a life of service; the values of a traditional Navajo life oppose the values of the Anglo world in such matters as the death penalty being sought by Acting Assistant U. S. Attorney J. D. Mickey for Robert Jano, alleged killer of Officer Kinsman. The theme of justice triumphing over race-based enmity emerges in the cooperation of Cowboy Dashee and former Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. And the value of traditional Navajo belief and ritual in the lives of Jim Chee and his uncle is an on-going theme in all of Hillerman's "Navajo" novels.
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