Tony Hillerman, Man of Enchantment
Man of Enchantment
by Mary Lynn Reed, Friend o' the Tarts and tolerant wife of backblogger Tom Barclay, has written three books on state demographics, a collection of sewing and humor features, a near-future thriller, a shaggy-dog Near-Earth Orbit feghoot, not to mention a haunting 19th century sf story, set in the desert Southwest, just a bit under the influence of her aquaintance, the late Tony Hillerman.
People who come to New Mexico often say they're changed by the experience. The scenery is enchanting, true, but it's the spirits of the land who make the magic. Something ancient wafts in the air, rises out of the earth, chants in the wind. If this speaks to you though you've never visited New Mexico, there's a good chance Tony Hillerman connected you to those spirits from afar.
I spent most of the '70s at the University of New Mexico, first as a student, then as staff. Tony's social circle and mine often intersected. I fell under his personal spell before I fell for his literary magic. He was a raconteur of the highest order, with a knack for prising the intriguing from the mundane.
At more than one party, Tony saved me from social dis-ease--he would talk and I would listen. He spoke with an Oklahoma twang, not a Southwestern drawl. I didn't pay much attention then, but I recently discovered he was born and raised in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, ten miles from where all my children were born. I would like to say that's why I felt so comfortable in his presence, but so did everyone else (except the few pseudo-intellectuals pining for a Harvard accent.)
I met him right after Dancehall of the Dead was published, before all the awards were heaped upon him. Although he thrived on teaching journalism, he was enjoying the move to fiction in his personal writings. He had spent fourteen years as a newspaper man and likened the change to working in plastic instead of flint. But Tony could chip flint with the best. If you haven't read some of his non-fiction, I recommend you start with The Great Taos Bank Robbery. Then move on to some of Hillerman's other works about New Mexico and the Southwest.
And please, read his memoir, Seldom Disappointed. Tony spun the tales of his life--as a child in Indian School, as a wounded soldier and war hero, as a gonzo journalist, as the bag man for a university president, as a husband and father of six kids (5 adopted) and as an author--with the same sure feel for words and setting he used with Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
Later on, I worked as a token Anglo for a Native American-owned consulting firm. I experienced aspects of the culture seen by few whites. The next few times we met, Hillerman and I would share our sense of prividege that we were allowed glimpses of the culture from the inside. We would wail in '70s outrage at colonialism and Anglo arrogance. But the bitching would soon turn bewitching as Tony told new stories--and he always had new stories. He grasped the world view held by the Navajo as few outsiders ever have. He could make the rest of us feel it, too, if only for a moment. Ultimately, he was named Special Friend of the Dineh in 1987 by the Navajo Nation for his honest, accurate portrayal of Navajo people and their culture.
Tony was one of those people that excelled whatever he chose to do, whether as a journalist, teacher, author or soldier in WWII, where he was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. But he never read his own PR.
A life well lived and a man well loved.