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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Skeleton Man and more by Tony Hillerman

Skeleton Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN: 0-06-056344-3), The Jim Chee Mysteries (New York: HarperCollins, 1990. ISBN: 0-06-016478-6) including People of Darkness (1980), The Dark Wind (1982) and The Ghostway (1984) by Tony Hillerman.

Skeleton Man is Tony Hillerman's latest mystery featuring Navaho policeman Jim Chee, and (now) retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. People of Darkness, The Dark Wind and The Ghostway are the first three Jim Chee novels, presented here in an omnibus volume. Skeleton Man is definitely an improvement over Hillerman's previous effort, The Sinister Pig. The story is based on an actual event, the crash of two airliners over the Grand Canyon years ago. This helps give the book some of its verisimilitude.

But what I miss when I compare Hillerman's recent Jim Chee stories with those earlier ones, is Chee's own immersion in his Navajo culture. Chee no longer seems to be striving to walk in beauty, or if he is, we don't hear about it. Is he still trying to become a yatalli, a singer, Navajo medicine man? Much of the character conflict which made the first stories so interesting was internal: Chee's struggle between his traditional heritage, and the way of the white man. Will he become an FBI agent? Will he leave the reservation for a job in Washington D.C.?

In each case there is conflict which involves his relationship with women. First Mary Landon, the Wisconsin farm girl turned teacher of Navajo children. In later stories, it's Janet Pete, a Navajo by blood, but one who has adapted to American culture, and wants Chee to join her in a prestigious job in Washington. In each case, Chee eventually rejects love in favor of maintaining his native culture to at least some degree, although there is also conflict between that culture and his role as a tribal policeman.

But now, Chee's mind is full of thoughts of Bernadette Manuelito, his fiancé, and their upcoming life together. Do his former aspirations play no role in his life any longer? Is his uncle, from whom he was learning the old ways, still living? There have been too many books, and too many years, and I can't remember all the details from each and every one. I guess I'll just have to continue my journey back through them all for the second time.

This much I will say: the books are definitely worth a second read. Or a first read, if you've never been there. Highly recommended, but the older books are recommended more highly than the newer ones.

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