Tuesday, May 26, 2009
A Thief of Time
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
In A Thief of Time, Tony Hillerman is a master storyteller at the height of his powers. Every detail fits. There are no lose ends. More than that, by the end of the book, Leaphorn and Chee, two men who tolerate each other, find their relationship on sacred ground.
We all have favorite writers and favorite books. My favorite Tony Hillerman book is Dance Hall of the Dead, but in some ways, this book is even better.
When Leaphorn sets out to find a missing archaeologist, he does so to honor his wife Emma.
Fate played a terrible trick on Leaphorn and Emma, though Leaphorn might not have put it that way. Leaphorn's wife Emma seemed to have a debilitating disease, growing dementia. But it turned out to be a probably-benign brain tumor. She could be cured. Then she died as a result of a blood clot from the complicated operation. Now Leaphorn is struggling to adjust.
They had spent their lives together sharing everything including the details of his cases. She, like him, saw what he did as a way of restoring harmony, a way of acknowledging the relationship of all things. They shared everything.
Leaphorn has turned in his resignation to the Navajo tribal police. He is in his ten-day termination period. He sets out to find the archaeologist.
Jim Chee comes at it from another way. He sets out to find a missing back hoe, stolen to aid the thieves in digging up sacred Native American artifacts. He too has personal struggles which, though different than Leaphorn's, have to do with his devotion to the sacred way.
There are all kinds of thieves of time--the people who do the digging; the middlemen who fence the pots; the art houses which sell the pots; the museums and wealthy people who buy the sacred pottery and then revel in the stories of where the pots came from, the stories of the ancient people who made them; and oddly enough, even many of the archaeologists who claim to be trying to learn about the ancient people.
When two diggers and a middle man are murdered, Leaphorn and Chee unravel the scheme from two different ends.
Hillerman's laid-back style belies the complexity and emotional depth of this story.
Sometimes fiction can expose crimes nonfiction can't touch. As I read this book, I found myself asking if anyone other than Native Americans can interpret Native American culture. Should anyone other than Native Americans own and give sacred meaning to what might seem to me to be little more than decorated pots with interesting stories behind them?
And the answer is, "No." It is a sacrilege for someone like me to try to interpret Native American culture or to own it.
This is a powerful book. You become engrossed in the people and the way they relate to one another. And you learn that there is sacred ground upon which only people like Leaphorn and Chee can walk.