Hillerman Cult Goes Public

For some years, a relatively tiny cult has waited impatiently for the publication of each successive Tony Hillerman mystery novel set in the Navajo country of the Four Corners area and revolving around the character of Navajo tribal police Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Suddenly now Hillerman has become a national literary and cultural sensation.

Hillerman, a former newspaperman and university professor who lives in Albuquerque, began to take off when he teamed up Leaphorn with the young officer Jim Chee in "Skinwalkers" in 1987. He drew even more attention with "A Thief of Time" the following year. And this year, his 11th book, "Talking God," was a general fiction best seller before it even hit the bookstores. Since then, Hillerman's modest, gentle demeanor has become familiar on national television. Robert Redford has bought movie rights to the series and hired Hillerman to consult on three planned movies.

It is difficult to say why the Hillerman phenomenon should occur just now. But it does not take too much to determine why Hillerman has become so popular. He is a solid, down-to-earth storyteller. He is a master at describing the feel of the mesas, canyon lands and sky of the Four Corners area with their varying lights and moods. He expertly and sensitively educates readers on the history, culture and religion of the Navajo, Hopi and other tribes of the region. And in Jim Chee, he confronts the struggle within young native Americans over attraction to family, tradition and homeland--and often joblessness and poverty--and the allure of the white man's "civilization" with its opportunities for education, advancement and wealth.

Hillerman does not gloss over the problems of Navajos--alcoholism for instance. While they compose the nation's largest tribe, Navajos are at the bottom of the pecking order of Southwest Indians, the country bumpkins, he told Newsweek. Hillerman can relate to that because he was a country guy, too. Still, Hillerman describes the Navajos and their culture with appropriate dignity. There is nothing pretentious here. His stories come together so well because they ring so true.

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