Like father, like daughter

When I learned that the daughter of the late mystery writer Tony Hillerman had stepped up and written a novel featuring the same Southwest landscape and the same Navajo characters as her famous dad, I didn’t know what to think.

Tony Hillerman was such an accomplished writer, virtually unparalleled in producing 18 novels that honored the Navajo culture while also conveying the barren beauty of the rugged terrain that defines much of Arizona and New Mexico.

spider woman's daughterCould his daughter — or any writer, for that matter — do justice to the characters of Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police?

The answer is yes.

Thanks to my friend, Lynn St. Georges, I took a borrowed book with me on a recent vacation and breezed through its 352 pages in no time at all. “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” the debut novel by Anne Hillerman, was a pleasant surprise. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was Tony’s 19th, so similar is the book in plot, structure and voice.

Leaphorn and Chee are at the center of the story, of course. But they are joined by a new-to-me character, Officer Bernadette Manuelito, who is Chee’s wife. Manuelito appears in Hillerman’s 15th and 16th books (“The Wailing Wind” and “The Sinister Pig”) but this was the first time I’d encountered her.

Suffice to say she blends in neatly with the other two Navajo detectives, sharing a common culture and a knack for solving crimes.

In “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” Manuelito plays a critical role in figuring out who shot a law enforcement colleague, drawing on her university studies and knowledge of Native American art — plus her quick wits when she inevitably finds herself in harm’s way.

Tony Hillerman died in 2008. With his passing, I figured that was the last of the Leaphorn and Chee series. Little did I know that Anne Hillerman was a Santa Fe-based writer herself, with four non-fiction books to her credit.

In her acknowledgments at the end of “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” she wrote:

(F)rom head to toe, I appreciate the scores of my dad’s fans who asked if he had another manuscript stashed away somewhere (no, he didn’t). Like me they wanted more stories of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and Bernadette Manuelito. They urged me to jump into the job by sharing their own stories of affection for Dad, the characters he created, and the landscape in which they lived.”

Anne Hillerman is framed by a collection of her father's books, in Santa Fe.

Anne Hillerman is framed by a collection of her father’s books, in Santa Fe.

I think Tony would be awfully proud of his Anne. He left big shoes to fill. In my view, his daughter has taken one step forward, with a display of skill and respect for her father and the fictional world he brought to life for us readers. Already, she’s taken a second step with the publication of a second Navajo Tribal Police mystery called “Rock With Wings.”

Random observation: Except for the actress Bernadette Peters and my niece Bernadette Hermocillo Rackley, I’m hard pressed to think of any real-life or fictional people with that first name.

Photograph: Eddie Moore, Albuquerque Journal/2012

8 thoughts on “Like father, like daughter

  1. I am a Tony Hillerman junkie! I’ve read since before Bernadette’s time and you would love those older books. I can loan you my audio books for any road trip, wish I’d known before this last one. Anyway, I’m anxious to read this new one. Yay!

    Sent from my iPhone


    • It’s gratifying to know so many friends share a love of Hillerman’s books. I’ve plenty read of Tony’s so thanks, but I will decline the offer of the audio books. Just as a big factor: It’s WAY too noisy in the car (especially my VW Beetle) to hear anything well. Thanks for the offer, though.

  2. Wow. Thanks for your sweet words. I feel tremendously honored to have the opportunity to continue this beloved series.

    • Anne, it was a pleasure to write so positively about you and your debut novel. I was gratified to learn from a couple of my journalism friends — Emiliana Sandoval and Minerva Canto, both of whom have Santa Fe connections — that you are a genuinely nice person on top of being a talented writer.

      You’ll be happy to know that I passed my borrowed copy of your book to a friend who also commented on this site — Alexandra Zell. We’ll try to keep it in circulation.

      Best wishes as you continue the Leaphorn-Chee-Manuelito series. You have some avid fans in Portland. Would love to meet you if you ever come this way on tour or vacation.

  3. Anne, I along with thousands of other fans, want to thank you and your father for sharing your love of writing. His words live on forever:) I read your novel Spider Woman’s Daughter when it was first released and enjoyed it thoroughly. Your words are truly the paint on a canvas that gives the reader a visual into a life so many of us can relate to. I’ve been on the waiting list for your new release of “Rock with Wings” for many months and so glad to see it will be available before the end of the year! Thank you for staying in touch with your admirers. It means a lot:) Brin

  4. I was introduced to Tony Hillerman in the early 80’s. My love of a mystery, my awe of the Four Corners (from old John Wayne movies and my first visit to Monument Valley in the 70s, returning many times since), and my respect and affinity for the Navajo and other Native people of the Southwest and their culture (My paternal grandpa was Cherokee from KY, and a cowboy as a young man, who met my grandma on a TX ranch where she worked. Their wedding photo is on horseback. She was 15.) all came together in his books. I’ve read and re-read and listened to them all again and again (I love audio books which I listened to in the privacy of my van on long commutes, and now on my daily feeding rounds of my homeless cat colonies throughout the County, esp. when read by George Guidall). I am so glad Anne Hillerman has seamlessly continued sharing the journeys of my friends Leaphorn, Chee and Bernadette too. I missed them. I am a perpetually novice Navajo weaver and enjoy each day my modest collection of weavings that adorn my walls. Years ago on one of my trips, I stopped by the home of the woman who had been one of my instructors who lives at the base of Table Mesa. I rode with Sarah and her husband Leo Natani up into the Chuska Mountains to bring supplies to the shepherd who tended their sheep during the hot summer. I was amazed! It was an oasis in this beautiful but harsh and arid land, of rolling emerald green, grassy hills and lakes. I still see vividly that image in my mind’s eye today. Every visit to this land is a needed and welcome escape from our busy world, a grounding, and brings such a sense of peace… Thank you, Tony! Thank you, Anne! I too enjoy the compilation of you and your husband in Landscape–on the road with Chee and Leaphorn!

    Carole in San Jose, CA

  5. I spent many years in New Mexico working for the Indian Health Service and loved all of Tony Hillerman’s books.
    Imagine to my surprise, when his grandson married one of the granddaughters and daughter of my Navajo friends.
    My goal is to start reading Anne’s book.Thank you for continuing his legacy.
    Linda in Texas from Gallup

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s