At a Glance
Tony Hillerman could stake a claim as the creator of his own genre: the Native American mystery. Throughout his prolific writing career, Hillerman penned dozens of mystery novels, many of which take place in Native American environments and feature Native American characters. He is most recognized for his series of stories featuring the characters Lt. Leaphorn and his sidekick, Chee, who embody the identity struggles faced by many Native Americans. In his work, Hillerman provided no easy solutions to the ever-present tension between scientific empiricism and Native American spirituality.
Facts and Trivia
- Hillerman’s Leaphorn novels number nearly twenty, and his lucrative writing career made him one of the richest people in the state of New Mexico.
- In Hillerman’s novels, characters are often referred to by their physical attributes or clothing, a practice of Native American origin.
- For his service in World War II, Hillerman was honored many times, earning Bronze and Silver Stars, as well as the Purple Heart.
- Hillerman taught journalism at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque for nearly twenty years.
- Hillerman died on October 26, 2008.
Tony Hillerman was born on a farm near Sacred Heart, a small town in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, on May 27, 1925, to August Alfred and Lucy Grove Hillerman. Situated amid worn-out farmland, the town was mostly Roman Catholic. Hillerman grew up with children of Blackfoot, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Comanche, and Pottawatomie farmers, since Oklahoma has historically been the relocation place for many displaced tribes. In an unusual move, his parents had him attend grade school at St. Mary’s Academy in Sacred Heart. Not only was the academy for girls, but it was also for American Indian girls; the Hillermans showed a value for education and also a tolerance for another people that was unusual in that time period. Growing up amid these cultural influences and his family’s lack of prejudice clearly had an impact on Hillerman’s later writing.
At age eighteen, Hillerman had to leave his studies in chemistry at the University of Oklahoma to enter military service in Europe during World War II. His service in Germany led to his receiving the Purple Heart and Bronze and Silver Stars. In a propitious move for mystery readers everywhere, upon his return he switched his college major to journalism. He felt his eyes were no longer suited for chemistry since they had been damaged in the war and he wore a patch over one. He graduated with a journalism degree in 1948. That same year, he married Marie Unzner and started a family that soon included six children. His first reporting job was with the Borger, Texas, newspaper, where he covered crime. Moving up in the field, he eventually became editor of The New Mexican in Santa Fe.
Hillerman found success in his chosen profession, but his desire to write fiction led him to leave his newspaper job in his thirties to study literature at the University of New Mexico. His M.A. in literature, received in 1966, led to a new job teaching in the journalism department. Hillerman published his first novel, The Blessing Way, in 1970. The title indicates the direction of his influential and highly regarded mysteries: The Blessing Way is the name of a Navajo healing ceremony, and all subsequent Hillerman titles had to do with various aspects of Native American cultural traditions.
In 1971, Hillerman wrote The Fly on the Wall, a political intrigue involving a reporter and murder and did not involve Native Americans. (His only other novel that didn’t involve Native Americans, Finding Moon, a novel about Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, was published much later, in 1995.) In 1972, he wrote The Boy Who Made Dragonfly, a retelling of a Zuni myth, for children.
Dance Hall of the Dead, which was published in 1973, was the second novel to feature Navajo tribal policeman Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Although The Blessing Way had achieved critical recognition and...
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