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October 30, 2008

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.

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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.


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A man whose talents will be sorely missed by many of us.

Peg is so right. What a talent! What a storyteller. He will be missed by many.

quick hijack - I'm looking for Rita Scott, Becky Hutchinson and xena. I want to use your ghost stories for my blog tomorrow. Can you contact me please?

Sorry TLC. I haven't been able to find them!

Back to our guest blogger.

Tony Hillerman was a true gentleman of the old school. His work will be missed, but not as much as the man himself....

Mary Lynn! This is beautiful - both in style and substance. What a treat to have you as a blogger today!

I read some of his fiction years ago - my Mom read all of them. Time to dig them out for a re-visit.

And how cool to get a peek into your life story.

Thanks for a wonderful tribute and a great blog.


Thanks, Mary Lynn, for taking my spot on the blog today---and so beautifully, too! I met Tony Hillerman only once, and he was such a delight. I love his books. He's left an amazing legacy behind.

Hijack----I find myself thinking about other famous writers I've met, and most of them are/were charmingly humble and pleasant conversationalists. I feel I can mention one exception, though, since she's no longer with us. Barbara Cartland was a monster! Hilarious, but a monster.

Oh, Nancy...some of the stories I could tell you from the trenches. I worked for a large independent bookstore (he sold out to a chain in 1997) here in St. Louis and we did lots of author signings. Some of the people you would almost expect to be a handful were wonderful. But then there were the surprise bitches & bastards...

Welcome, Mary Lynn, and thank you for a lovely goodbye to Tony Hillerman. His talent will be much missed. Hillerman's story, "The Fly on the Wall," was one of the best ever written about journalism.

Sister Zip - You mustn't leave us hanging like that! Spill Sister Spill!

Well, a certain actress who played the housekeeper of a "60s family show" came in with plenty of attitude & demands & a cranky attitude. When asked if she would take pictures with the people who bought the book & were getting it signed, she sighed & said, "If I must." She should have won an Oscar/Emmy/Golden Globe for her behavior with the customers.

On the other hand, Stephen King was an absolute delight. I brought in my first edition of "The Shining" and asked if he minded signing other things for the staff besides "Insomnia", his book of the moment. He looked at my book and smiled. "Do you know how much that is worth?", he asked. I said I did, but that I would get way more if he would sign it. Not that I would sell, mind you. He just laughed and signed & dated it. Very nice guy, funny stories.

Lovely, Mary Lynn -- you make me realize how long he's been on my Must Read list. So now I really must read. Thank you.

Mary Lynn, thanks for sharing your memories of Tony Hillerman. I fell in love with his books kind of late, after the first PBS movie based on his books. I realized I had a lot to learn about the Native American/Anglo issues he introduced in his writings. I'll miss his stories and particularly the small glimpses into the lives of Native Americans.

A tale well told, Mary Lynn, a tale well told.


This is one of the reasons why this blog is my favorite thing to read each day, because not only are the Tarts interesting and fun to read, but they choose to share such fascinating and timely guests and topics with us.

Mary Lynn, thank you for this glimpse into the life of one of my favorite writers, and in such a personal way. The writing and reading world has lost a bright light.

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