As I said in my (updated) main New Mexico post, after reading Joseph Bruchac’s Code Talker book, and starting to listen to Chester Nez’s Code Talker book, I decided to return to a new incarnation of an old favorite.
When I was in high school, in the mid- to late-1980’s my dad and I read a number of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. They were a perfect fit for us both–my dad is also a history buff, especially interested in World War II and in how the Native peoples of this land have been treated since the arrival of Europeans. On our cross-country camping trips we stopped at countless battlesites–including Little Big Horn–and Dad always investigated (and taught us) the Native American history and legends related to other sites as well–Mesa Verde and other Anasazi sites, Sheepeater Cliffs in Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower, places along the Lewis & Clark trail, Wounded Knee. He was enthusiastic about the Crazy Horse Memorial carving near Mount Rushmore, though it is doubtful he will still be alive to see it finished. We also must have traveled through the northern part of the Navajo Nation, because our route took us from the Grand Canyon, through Monument Valley, the Four Corners, and up to Mesa Verde. (We didn’t visit Canyon de Chelly or Chaco Canyon on that trip, but I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad did on a separate trip after we kids had left home.)
Anyway, he loved the Leaphorn and Chee books by Tony Hillerman. He always enjoyed the mental challenge of a good mystery or police procedural, but what sets the Hillerman books apart is the cultural details the author gives about the Navajo (in particular) and other Southwestern Native Americans–Pueblos, Hopi, Zuni. My dad was never demonstrative when I was growing up, so having something like this to share with him was important for both of us.
When Tony Hillerman died in the fall of 2008, I was busy with my son who had been born in February of that year, but I know Dad mentioned it to me. And, in 2013, when Tony’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, published Spider Woman’s Daughter, Dad told me about that too. He was intrigued that she was carrying on her father’s legacy, and was, I think, excited to read more about Leaphorn and Chee.
I’m pretty sure he read at least the first one, but I’m certain we didn’t discuss it–because I was totally not expecting what happens in one of the first scenes of the book. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, now retired but still honored by and loosely connected to the Navajo Tribal Police, is shot in the head at point-blank range, in the parking lot of a restaurant where he’s just finished meeting with current officers.
On the one hand, it’s a great way to give notice that Anne Hillerman is not her father and intends to take ownership of the series. On the other hand, the plot develops into a twenty-years-later follow-up or continuation of the plot of A Thief of Time, the eighth book in the series, published in 1988. My memories of this novel are pretty vague, as I probably read it in 1989 (when the paperback would have come out), but I do remember some of the plot points that Ms Hillerman mentions to refresh our memories–Chee inadvertently giving the bad guy info that led to the attack on the anthropologist Ellie, the helicopter rescue from the canyon, and the non-traditionalist skeptic Leaphorn requesting that Chee do a cleansing sing for him.
Overall, I enjoyed the book–I like that Ms Hillerman has changed the focus to female Tribal Officer Bernie Manuelito, who is married to Jim Chee from the original books. It allows her to develop this character and make it her own, while still keeping Leaphorn and Chee around and important. Some reviews I saw didn’t like the focus put on Bernie’s family life (the ailing mother and the somewhat lost little sister who is supposed to be caring for her), but I like that it adds other aspects of Navajo life–both information from the mother’s life and the challenges faced by the younger generations.
I noticed that some of Anne Hillerman’s other interests make themselves known through Bernie’s commentary and viewpoints. In 2010, she published Gardens of Santa Fe, a collaboration with her husband, photographer Don Strel. In Spider Woman’s Daughter, Bernie takes a walk with her mother through the older woman’s garden and learns about the healing properties of several plants, and in another scene, she points out a peony bud in a Santa Fe garden to her husband (who later sends her a picture of the opened flower).
Anne Hillerman was also a restaurant critic in Santa Fe, and in 2009 she published Santa Fe Flavors: Best Restaurants and Recipes. This interest shows up in several food scenes–one showcasing an African-influenced cafe named Jambo, which “smelled like a rainbow of spices and fresh bread,” where Bernie is tempted by the exotic-sounding jerk organic tofu sandwich but ultimately opts for the familiar goat stew. I was somewhat surprised to find that this is a real Santa Fe restaurant, with all the items mentioned in the book on the menu. Another restaurant mentioned in the book is El Bruno’s in Cuba, New Mexico, which, after finding Jambo, I was less surprised to discover is also a real place, as is the Flying Tortilla in Santa Fe, where Chee eats the “Big Jim” chile rellenos. It’s always fun to discover (or recognize) a real location in a novel, and since this is food-related, I might have to find out a little more for a food/setting post for the book later.
Incidentally, there are very few birds in this book–a couple of ravens and turkey vultures, a figurative (or legendary) eagle, and several unnamed and unidentifiable owls and hummingbirds.
But back to Spider Woman’s Daughter. I thought, at first, that the title was going to be related to the villain, but it turned out to be a reference to Officer Bernadette Manuelito–sort of a nickname given to Bernie by her traditional Navajo rug weaver mother, and to Bernie’s gift for connecting all of the threads of a case in order to solve it. I suspect it is also a reference to Hillerman herself, as daughter of the series’ original author, putting the threads of a novel together. In many ways, I think this novel serves as a connector, linking the original books to the new–allowing the reader to get used to the new style and perspective, while paying tribute to the history of the series, through the characters and even through the previous case.
Regardless of what I thought of the plot and the main mystery–it was ok; nothing earth-shattering or terribly unique–the main reason I added it to my challenge books was for the cultural and physical setting of the Navajo Nation, and, in that respect, it was a definite winner. Chee does another healing sing for Leaphorn, and there is a discussion about all of the reasons that what he does and how he does it are wrong from a traditional Navajo standpoint–due, in part to all of the hospital rules. There are multiple references to the reluctance of the Navajo to speak names–of anyone in general, but especially of the dead (or dying). There is the whole red-tape, administrative issue of the FBI overseeing serious crime investigations on Federal land (which includes Native American reservations). There are some wonderful descriptions of the Hopi and Anasazi pottery that is central to the case, and Navajo rug weaving–in particular with reference to Hosteen Klah and a bit of the controversy surrounding some of his weavings that incorporated Navajo sacred tales. And there are several New Mexico locations that are key to the book–the American Indian Resource Center (which I believe is based on the real-life Museum of Indian Arts & Culture) and Chaco Canyon.
Overall, I’m glad I added Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman to my reading challenge list, and I would definitely recommend it and others from the series to get a feeling for the Navajo Nation and some of its traditions. I am interested in reading more of Ms Hillerman’s contributions to the series, as well as some of the later books from the original Leaphorn and Chee books which I think I missed. I’m particularly looking forward to her upcoming fourth installment, Cave of Bones, to be released in April 2018, which incorporates Navajo legends about the Malpais area of New Mexico. We learned a bit about the Malpais volcanic area in The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church, so I’m particularly interested in hearing about the Navajo legends from the area.