“‘The way it’s told,…they’re invisible. But you can see them if you’re about to die.'” – Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

On Tuesday of last week, Cheryl, one of the newer members of the Usual Suspects, did our group a very big favor. She selected, for our discussion and reading pleasure, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.

And what a pleasure it was to revisit the work of this master storyteller, with his unpretentious style, evocative setting, and intriguing characters. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) is the second entry in the Joe Leaphorn series; in the fourth, People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman introduces the younger officer, Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee are paired as investigators for the first time in Skinwalkers (1986). It was to prove a winning direction in which to take the series.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, the investigation begins with the disappearance of two adolescent boys, Ernesto Cata and George Bowlegs. Ernesto is a Zuni; George is Navajo. They are fast friends are nearly always seen together. Ernesto goes missing first; then George, who flees from his school classroom the following day. The boys had recently been hanging around at an archeological dig in progress nearby

George envied his friend’s Zuni identity and wished to become part of his tribe. He was also said to be embroiled with a kachina, the sight of which supposedly portends death for the uninitiated. In the early part of the novel, Leaphorn himself is unnerved one night by an unanticipated sighting of what seems to be one of these same spirit beings. This occurs when he thinks he spots a youth who’d been part of a group of hippies living in an abandoned hogan:

Was this him standing so silently under  the arbor? But why would he stand there in the icy moonlight? And how had he got there without Leaphorn seeing him? As he considered this, the figure moved. With birdlike swiftness it darted out of the arbor to the side of the hogan, disappearing into  the shadow. It crouched, pressed against the logs….And then the figure straightened, its head moving upward into  the slanting moonlight. Leaphorn sucked in his breath. The head was a bird’s. Round, jaylike feathers plumes thrusting backward, a long, narrow sandpiper’s beak, a bristling ruff of feathers where  the human neck would be. The head was round. As it turned away from profile, Leaphorn saw round eyes ringed with yellow against the black. He was seeing the staring., expressionless face of a kachina. Leaphorn felt the hairs bristling at the back of his neck.

As do I, reading this mesmerizing passage, and as I did when I first read Dance Hall of the Dead over twenty years ago.

Kachina dolls in the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ

Carol said that she’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Hillerman was. She’s right: there’s more  beautiful prose where the above came from.

Tony Hillerman was born in Oklahoma in 1925. He served with distinction in the Second World War, after which he became a journalist.

When he had returned home on convalescent leave from the Army he came upon a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and feathers in Crownpoint, New Mexico They were holding a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony, a curing ritual for a soldier just like himself just back from the war. The ritual exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle.

He was moved by the ceremony and by the Navajos — “I’m drawn to people who believe in something enough that their lives are affected by it” — and stirred by the vastness of the country to the extent that he resolved to live there.

From the New York Times obituary, 2008.

Hillerman’s experience of encountering the Enemy Way ceremony was key in leading him to write The Blessing Way (1970), first in what became the Leaphorn and Chee series centered on the Navajo Tribal Police. The rest, as  they say, is history.

Several of us long time Hillerman fans agreed that his work is still relevant and deserving of a wide readership. Marge reminded us of another author we’ve read whose work treats with empathy the subject of Native Americans. This is William Kent Krueger, who sets his mysteries in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. The tribe about which he writes is the Ojibwe. I’d like to add to that Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams, a vivid evocation of that same region and its mix of inhabitants.

We did have a  few minor reservation about Dance Hall of the Dead. For a relatively short novel – the current Harper paperback edition runs to 240 pages – there are numerous characters to keep track of. I found that to be especially true of the law enforcement professionals from various agencies who are engaged on the case.Marge felt that the description of the archeologists’ activities and goals became tedious, whereas I found the narration of the Zuni Pueblo religious and ceremonial rites to be similarly over long. Both passages slowed the pace of the narrative almost to a halt.

Yet we all felt that these were minor cavils that were more than made up  for by the privilege of spending time with these intriguing individuals as they go about their business in the exotic landscape they call home. I’d like to add here that I initially revisited this novel through the audiobook narration by George Guidall. I cannot recommend this approach to these novels highly enough; Guidall has a marvelous feel for these characters and places.

Hillerman’s novels were largely responsible for my trips in the 1990s to New Mexico and Arizona. If anything, the vivid immediacy of those experiences exceeded their written description. You have to feel the air, smell the pinon…it really is amazing. New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment” –  rarely has an entity lived up so completely to its sobriquet.

(Judith Van Giesen‘s Neil Hamel novels, written in the 1990s and set in Albuquerque, produced a  similar effect. This is a series that Marge and I were both very fond of, but it never received its due from the mystery-reading public. I tend to blame this sort of failure on weak publisher support – if any.)

Beginning with the publication of Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, Tony and Marie Hillerman’s daughter Anne Hillerman has been continuing the Navajo series begun by her unassuming yet illustrious father. I’ve not ready up until now, but I hope that will change soon.

Anthony Grove Hillerman May 27, 1925-October 26, 2008

 

 

1 Comment

  1. kdwisni said,

    Thanks for the reminder Roberta. I’ve been so immersed in British mysteries that I’ve been neglecting my compatriots. Will have to reread this one (as soon as I finish Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ latest).

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