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Native American writers are creating some of the best writing today: Just look at the acclaim for Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, The Round House, which won the National Book Award for fiction last year.
Erdrich’s book is not a mystery, yet mystery and suspense run through it. Erdrich has said, “I wanted to make it a book with suspense, so I keep answering questions all through the book. There’s always something unanswered.” (BookPage reviews) Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that she was battling breast cancer while she was writing it.
The Round House is set on an Ojibway reservation in North Dakota, where a 14-year-old boy sets out to avenge a brutal attack on his mother. His father is a tribal judge, and justice and inequality are central to the story. So are native spirituality and Catholicism. The story is tragic, but apparently it’s also funny when tribal elders get into the act.
As part of my series on mysteries set in different parts of the world, I thought I’d look for some set in Indian country. Turns out none of the following mystery authors are themselves Native American. And none is probably as highly regarded as Louise Erdrich. But all can tell a good story, and you can learn a lot, too.
The dean of this genre, and my favorite, was Tony Hillerman, author of the best-selling Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series. Leaphorn and Chee are Navajo tribal police, who also work on cases involving Hopis and Zunis. They are both well educated and steeped in Navajo ways – especially Chee, who is studying to be a medicine man. Hillerman was known for his sensitivity to Native American traditions and concerns, as well as to the beauty of the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Check out the series, starting with The Blessing Way.
Navajo Tradition and Modernity
Also writing about Navajos are Aimee and David Thurlo, a husband and wife team in New Mexico. Their main detective is Ella Clah, who starts out in the FBI and then joins the tribal police. The newest book is Black Thunder. Clah investigates a series of burials in a spot that straddles the border of the Rez – is a serial killer at work? Clah’s life is complicated by worries about her teenage daughter and about her mother. Like Leaphorn and Chee, she struggles with conflicts between Navajo tradition and modernity.
James D. Doss wrote a series about Ute policeman Charlie Moon, from southern Colorado, and Moon’s aunt Daisy Perika, a shaman. It seems Doss is not for everybody. He was a scientist at Los Alamos who wrote in a down-home style with a lot of humorous dialogue and asides, and some people don’t like his style. From what Doss said in an interview, Utes have a great sense of humor so he figured he’d be funny too. He also said he believed Ute mystical beliefs might possibly be true, as he believed what is in the New Testament to be true. Try White Shell Woman.
The newest mystery in the Windy River Reservation series by Margaret Coel is Buffalo Bill’s Dead Now. The detectives are Vicky Holden, an Arapaho lawyer, and her friend Father John O’Malley. In the book, valuable Arapaho regalia worn in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show have been stolen, and the wealthy collector who has donated them to the tribe’s museum is murdered. The action goes back and forth between the present day and 1890’s Berlin, where the Show was performing when the regalia last disappeared. Vicky’s feelings for Father John, a Jesuit priest, are part of the appeal of the story.
Vaughn Harrison works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile.