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The Blessing Way: 06/12/12
I have been collecting the Navajo Mysteries by Tony Hillerman since I first read Talking God in college. The early Hillerman books contain a lot ethnographic observations on Diné culture and language. So much, so, that they were used as required reading for a non-western art class I took as a freshman.
Although the books stand by themselves and can be read out of order, I've decided to go back and read the series in order, filling in the ones I've missed.
The series opened with The Blessing Way, published in 1970. The cold war is still going strong, so is the Vietnam War. There are no cellphones, making the quarter million miles of wilderness that is the Navajo Nation a very remote location even though it sits within Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.
For fans of the later books, the older cop, younger cop dynamic is missing. There's no Jim Chee to get under Joe Leaphorn's skin. Instead, there's what I can guess is an attempt at an authorial insert in the form of a belagaana professor who specializes in Navajo culture. He gives an expert but decidedly outsider's observations.
The problem though, is Dr. Bergen McKee, as an outsider doesn't have the same motivations to solve the murder as Joe Leaphorn does. And although he may know some of the different Sings, he's not actually studying them to perform them as Jim Chee tries in Talking God.
But the grains of what will be in later novels is here. There are thoughts on Navajo beliefs and motivations and questions about what would make someone break from form. Differences in Navajo subcultures are discussed but not fleshed out as they will be in later books.
Despite the discrepancies, some very dated material, as well as a somewhat clunkier writing style, I still enjoyed the book. I listened to an audio version performed by George Guidall. He had the perfect voice for the mystery and brought all the characters to life. I enjoyed his work so much I plan to listen to book three, Listening Woman, on CD as well.