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Tom Chaney: Shadows on the Wall

Of Writers and Their Books: Shadows on the Wall, a review of Tony Hillerman's 17th novel, The Shape Shifter. Review first published 2 September 2007 in the Hart County Herald
The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney: Just Like a Goose

By Tom Chaney

Shadows on the Wall

I do not "do philosophy" as a friend of mine who "did" was fond of saying when telling folks what his occupation was. I'm not even a student of philosophy. At best I'm just a dabbler. Yet folks who follow that path have a great deal to tell us about ourselves and the nature of the world we inhabit.

Plato's metaphor using the cave as a description of reality suggests that what we think of as real is merely the flickering shadows of the ideal, which we cannot see, cast by a flame in the stygian darkness.

So it is with Joe Leaphorn, the now retired Navajo policeman in Tony Hillerman's seventeenth novel featuring tribal lawmen Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

At the beginning of The Shape Shifter, Leaphorn receives a note from Mel Bork with whom he worked a decade ago on a case which remains unsolved.

In that case a suspicious trading post fire resulted in a death and supposedly destroyed a rare and valuable Navajo rug. Bork sends Leaphorn a magazine photo showing the rug. When Leaphorn tries to contact him, Bork has vanished.

Leaphorn sets out to find his friend Bork, the rug and the reappearing man who has assumed many identities over the years -- as well as insinuating his own death in Oklahoma.

Further details of the plot should be kept for a reading of the novel.

However, one of the delights of reading Tony Hillerman is his detailed knowledge of Navajo and Hopi culture. Another is the vivid sense of landscape in the Four Corners territory of the southwest.

The contrast between Leaphorn and Chee is interesting. Leaphorn has been the teacher of Chee, his younger colleague. Leaphorn is the product of the educational policy of assimilation wherein young Navajo children were educated off the reservation and every effort was made to force them into mainstream America.

Chee, on the other hand, when he appeared in Hillerman's third novel was "younger, less assimilated, less sophisticated. The friction between the old assimilated cop, and rookie deeply into his culture seemed natural and necessary," according to Hillerman in an interview. "As time passed, in future books their respect for one another grew."

By the time of The Shape Sifter Leaphorn is the old horse out to pasture with a chance of cleaning up some unfinished business. Chee is off on his honeymoon.

Two other elements of the novel are worth mentioning. The rug in question is a tale teller rug representing "all the dying, humiliation, and misery you Navajos went through when the army put you in that concentration camp over on the Pecos back about a hundred and fifty years ago."

The houseboy for the shape shifting, rug thieving, arsonist, millionaire killer is from the Hmong tribe of Laos. Brought over at the time of the fall of Saigon as a ten-year-old, he has remained a virtual slave of his supposed benefactor for decades. The houseboy plays a significant role in solving the murder and gives Hillerman a chance to weave his own rug of similarities between Asian and western native American cultures.

By the time Leaphorn begins to get a handle on the mystery, Jim Chee has returned from his honeymoon with his fellow officer Bernie Manuelito. With their assistance the threads are woven and trimmed. But it is Leaphorn who has the vision and who proves that even the old horse can still make it around the track when called upon.

And Tony Hillerman, now in his eighties, is also undimmed by age. Rather he sees the shadows on the wall of our cave with more clarity. The Shape Shifter is ample proof.

Editorial Note: Tony Hillerman (May 27, 1925 - October 26, 2008)

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-09-02 03:52:23
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