The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although A Thief of Time is built on the framework of the detective story, it is essentially a novel of characterization, a portrayal of the values and complex development of two Navajo tribal policemen, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The remaining cast of characters is subordinate to the portrayal of the two major characters, underscoring the fact that the novel’s action derives from character.

Joe Leaphorn is a modern Navajo who functions as a mediator between cultures—comfortable with the ways of the dominant white culture, pragmatic, a bit skeptical and cynical about taboos (he does not believe in witches or evil ghosts), yet steeped in tribal traditions and at home in the Southwestern landscape. He accepts the basic metaphysical thrust of Navajo culture: hozho, the Beautyway, which implies harmony, cosmic orderliness, and the interdependency of nature and the Navajo people. Crime, therefore, is disharmony, disorder, a social and spiritual aberration. Keenly analytical, Leaphorn seeks the underlying pattern of events. His quest to solve the mystery of Friedman-Bernal’s disappearance by connecting intricate links becomes a complex metaphor for his need to restore social and spiritual order, not only to his jurisdiction but also to himself as he recovers from his grief over his wife Emma’s death. Leaphorn’s movement from despondent apathy to a reawakened curiosity and an appetite for life forms part of a pattern that includes his...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal

Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, an anthropologist whose specialty is Anasazi ceramics. Formerly married to an archaeologist who ran off with another woman, Friedman-Bernal is exploring ancient Anasazi burial areas on a New Mexico Navajo reservation in search of potsherds and the occasional intact pot. While exploring the ruins alone one night, she disappears, at about the same time an anonymous caller to the Navajo Tribal Police accuses her of violating the Antiquities Preservation Protection Act.

Joe Leaphorn

Joe Leaphorn, a lieutenant with the Navajo Tribal Police who is in the last two weeks of a thirty-day terminal leave prior to retirement. Nevertheless, he becomes involved in what appears to be a series of related events: the disappearance of Friedman-Bernal, the nighttime theft of government vehicles, and a pair of murders. Though a Navajo, he is not afraid of the chindi, spirits of the dead, because his career has immunized him against all but one, that of his wife, whose death he continues to mourn.

Jim Chee

Jim Chee, also an officer with the Navajo Tribal Police. He has strong ties to tribal traditions and religion, and he is concerned about disturbing the ghosts of the dead. His police responsibilities conflict with his beliefs when he has to search ruins of ancient burial grounds. Chee is hatathali, a Navajo singer and medicine man who has been trained to lead curing ceremonies. Having ended a relationship with a non-Navajo woman because of their cultural differences, he is tentatively embarking on a new one, this time with a fellow Navajo, Janet Pete, a lawyer with the tribal legal services office.

Maxie Davis


(The entire section is 724 words.)