As summer advances toward the solstice in late June, we on the Hillerman team are mentally projecting our bodies out into the terrain that our imaginations roam, thanks to Tony Hillerman. Although a significant portion of Hillerman’s Navajo detective series occurs in urban environments around the U.S., what the novels are best known for is their evocation of Southwest landscapes, landscapes into which he and his wife Marie would disappear whenever he encountered writer’s block.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of working on Hillerman’s third novel in his Navajo detective series,LISTENING WOMAN, and this semester, I have been in the throes of THE DARK WIND, the fifth novel in the series.
On February 24, Ann Massmann, a valued member of the University of New Mexico community, died after a long struggle with cancer. An archivist and activist, Ann joined the Center for Southwest Research in 1995, where her research interests led to her collaborative work on Native American outreach initiatives, both through her work as the head of Public Services for the Anderson Reading Room, as well as her membership on the Society of American Archivists Native Americans Roundtable.
In his 2001 memoir, SELDOM DISAPPOINTED, Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) recalls the “life-changing miracle” that was meeting his future wife, Marie Elizabeth Unzner. “All else… [was] trivial,” writes Hillerman. In October 1947, Hillerman attended a dance at the university’s Newman Center, where he saw a slender, laughing woman with enchanting eyes. Unable to stop thinking about her, he offered to help her with her English composition assignments (she was pursuing a double major in microbiology and education).
Hello, I am the new Tony Hillerman Digital Fellow; I joined the crew in August. As the new fellow I was initiated into the project by being assigned to work on People of Darkness. My job is to research and define terms from the novel that would contribute to the digital encyclopedia. We have been taking terms from Hillerman’s books and, through these definitions, have been constructing a picture of the Southwest through Tony Hillerman’s eyes. People of Darkness takes place in the Grants, NM area: the checkerboard section of the Navajo reservation, Mount Taylor, and El Malpais. These were some of the very first terms I researched and defined for the encyclopedia. As it happened, just as I finished defining “Mount Taylor,” “Grants,” and “El Malpais,” a beautiful autumn weekend in late September presented itself as an opportunity for a camping getaway, and I decided it would be the perfect time to go explore landscape of People of Darkness in person, and on foot. It was Friday evening and already dusk when I arrived at the foothills of the mountain. I set up my tent in a quiet, deserted campsite, built a small campfire, and reread the first couple of chapters. Through the trees, in the dark, I could see the glowing, distant lights of a few secluded estates. Which one is B. J. Vines’ mansion? I wondered, imagining the wealthy villain’s house as Hillerman described it: the fireplace, the trophy heads on the walls, the grave of the “good Indian” Dillon Charley in the yard... The next morning, bright and early, I started my ascent of Mount Taylor. The air was cool and fragrant with the smell of juniper and pine, and the sky heavy with gray clouds. Soon enough I was sweating, trudging up, up, stopping occasionally to catch my breath and take pictures. Two hours later I was proudly standing at the very top of the sacred peak.