Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tributes: Tony Hillerman and John Leonard

(Originally posted December 2008)
Two of my favorite literary people died recently: two diverse men who entertained and enlightened me profoundly. Tony Hillerman wrote enchanting mysteries in and around Navajo country. I first learned of him in an interview on the Today Show in 1989. That summer I read seven of his novels, beginning with Listening Woman, a Joe Leaphorn novel, followed by People of Darkness featuring Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee, fictional policemen of the Navajo Nation, immediately became my literary heroes. Every year since then I have looked forward to at least one new Hillerman novel and I feared the day when there would be no more. Sadly, that day has come. During the school year of 1993/94, I lived in Cortez, Colorado and sometimes did substitute teaching on the nearby Ute Reservation. I remember standing by a large window in the classroom and gazing out at the surrounding desert scenery, especially the mesas in the distance, and thought about my favorite Navajo policemen. On the classroom shelves sat the books of Hillerman--the books of Indian Country. I don't know if they were required reading but I have heard that students learned more about their culture from Tony's books than they did living within it. Not all of his books were about Leaphorn and Chee. One of my favorites was Finding Moon, which took place in Southeast Asia. Wherever the setting, Tony Hillerman was a master storyteller and I will miss him profoundly.

My encounters with John Leonard were his regular appearances as a critic on The CBS Sunday Morning Show and that remained the only place where I saw him. But from the beginning, I was enthralled by him and his segment was my favorite part of that charming program. Most of the time I didn't understand a word he said but when I did, I was not only thrilled but also agreed with him. He critiqued everything--from books to movies to TV programs to music. Books, however, were what intrigued me the most. However, I only read one book that he recommended, The Witches’ Hammer by Jane Stanton Hitchcock, and when I finished it, I was puzzled as to why he had recommended it. Kurt Vonnegut once called him "the smartest man who ever lived." He was also a TV critic for New York magazine, book critic for The Nation, and among many other accomplishments, the author of numerous books.

These were two men who gave immeasurable pleasure yet were as unlike each other as two literary men could be.

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