by Cynthia Light Brown
I have been re-reading some of my favorite books lately, including mysteries by Tony Hillerman. Hillerman’s stories are almost all set in the American Southwest. For Hillerman, setting really is a character. To get there, he truly understands geography.
Geography is the interaction of people and the physical setting. Everything from geology to topography to climate comes into play, and it shapes human culture. In Hillerman’s setting, the dry, open landscapes are never far from the action of the novel. But even more, it affects the main characters, and particularly the Navajo culture that is central to the mysteries.
In most Hillerman books, he establishes early on that Leaphorn and Chee, two of the main characters and both Navajos, have a different cadence of interaction than is typical in white culture. The pattern of interaction between people is slow, depending on large amounts of listening and small amounts of talking. It is rude to interrupt, and long pauses are both common and comfortable. This pattern of conversation is then used throughout the book to continually call the reader back to the different culture, without banging us over the head.
Even more, this culture of conversation fits perfectly with the American Southwest setting. The huge vistas, long distances between people’s homes, the intense dryness with rare downpours—they all contribute to a meditative presence in the region. I have spent much time there, including long hours on a bicycle, and it does indeed engender quietness.
So Hillerman calls us back to his special setting not only by describing the physical setting, but also in people’s interactions. There is never a moment in his books where we could imagine ourselves anywhere else.