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Book Review: Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

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First things first about Shape Shifter: for those of us who have suffered through the many loves and heart-breaks of Jim Chee, he and Bernadette have finally tied the knot. With luck they will live happily after and we will hear the pitter patter of little Chee feet in the next book.

I am a Tony Hillerman fan. Wait, let me put it another way – Tony Hillerman is my role model, my literary idol. If I were to ever meet him I would probably drool and act like some moronic idiot, tongue-tied and brain-dead. Get the picture. His books are treasures. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are cherished friends. 

There has been considerable discussion about Shape Shifter, my favorite author’s most recent addition to his magnificent Navajo mystery series. Some fans have said they are disappointed with the book; some say it moves too slowly. I think the best way for a prospective reader to get a handle on this is to check out the reviews on Amazon. 

For me, though, Shape Shifter is good. The history is top-notch. Let’s fact the fact that Hillerman wrote the book on cultural accuracy. And, this one is just that, historically and culturally accurate. As a writer, a resident of the state where Hillerman lives, and a historian of the Wild West, I appreciate the author’s attention to detail.

The story is fascinating. I love the literary drive around “the Big Rez” or the Navajo Reservation. Old friends are re-visited. A mystery is solved. Leaphorn finally breaks down and agrees to use a cell phone. But the big news is Jim Chee is finally happy.

Jim Chee has for some time been my version of my perfect man. He is charming. He is a klutz and a gentleman. He has also been through the proverbial wringer when it comes to women. It all started with that cute little number, Mary Langdon. After she ditched him when he refused to join the FBI, he fell for Janet Pete, who was just a little too up and coming DC fast track for Chee. She was also in love with her boss. Then came cute little officer Bernadette Manuelito who idolized Chee. Let’s face it, with a guy like Jim Chee, only someone like Bernadette is good enough for him!

The big problem with Hillerman, as you’ve already seen, is his characters are so real, so alive, you become involved with them. I’ve been a mystery reader since my Nancy Drew days, but never have I encountered an author who turned fictional characters into flesh and blood the way Tony Hillerman does. I cried when Leaphorn’s beloved Emma died and laughed at some of Chee’s more klutzy moments. You feel the beauty of the land, smell the pinion, and can visualize those remarkable New Mexico sunsets. Tony Hillerman understands Kit Carson was not responsible for the heartache of the Long Walk that was enforced on the Navajo during the Civil War.

In Shape Shifter, Hillerman goes into the history of the Long Walk the way he did with the Navajo skinwalker tradition in Skinwalker. While Shape Shifter is not about The Long Walk, he touches on the history enough for someone like me, who is quite knowledgeable about the story, to be much appreciative. He gets it right.

I was absolutely fascinated with the art, history, archaeology, and culture of the Four Corners (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah) even before I was introduced to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series, going so far as to make several long, cross-country road trips to explore the region. The worst part of it is I came to know the highways and byways of the Four Corners better than I did the upstate of South Carolina. The Navajo have a wonderful outlook on life, which is highlighted in this most recent Hillerman novel. Their philosophy is one of balance. For every good action there is a bad action. For good there is evil. For hate there is love, life – death.

Even thought the late cultural writer Edward S. Curtis wrote that the Navajo are an intensely religious people, he wasn’t quite accurate. The Navajo ‘religion’ which is not actually a religion but a philosophy of life, is an offshoot of Zen Buddhism. Long ago, during the epoch of migration, somehow the Athabasca people, from which come the Navajo, several Eskimo tribes, and the Apache left their homeland near Tibet and eventually ended up in Alaska and in the desert Southwest.

Genetically speaking they are ‘first cousins’ to the Japanese to the point where many Navajo and Japanese last names are the same, only spelled slightly different. They have the Japanese eye for color, simplicity, and surrounding. There is a saying that a Navajo always knows how to find the best scenery for establishing a home-site. Beauty of nature is more important than price of abode. There is harmony in a sunset, a sunrise, or a magnificent view. One must maintain harmony in order to have a balanced existence. And in another striking similarity to their Tibetan origins, aide from Navajo medicine men or hatalli, only Tibetan priests perform ceremonies using sand paintings.

Navajo society is made up of a number of different clans. When a couple plans to marry, or even date, if they are traditional or have family who is, they must first make sure they are not related to the various and intricate set of clans. The Dine, the traditional name the Navajo call themselves, have some of the strongest incest taboos in existence and are very careful not to violate these taboos. To do so is to bring disharmony and even disaster upon your family. The taboos also serve to keep the Dine genetically strong by preventing inbreeding. I am friends with a gay couple, one is half Navajo and the other is one quarter Navajo. They come from related clans. I laughingly told Leroy he’s breaking the incest taboo.

At the beginning of each day a traditional Dine steps out of the door of the hogan or home. That door must always face east toward the rising sun. If anyone has died in the hogan or in any home that building must be boarded up and abandoned, never to be entered again. Spirits of the dead are said to linger within. If one must enter and break harmony, a specific curing ceremony must be utilized.

“Let beauty walk before me.
Let beauty walk above me.
Let beauty walk behind me.
There is beauty all around me.
I walk in beauty.
In beauty it is complete”.

The Navajo language is one of the most difficult in the world. During the Second World War when the military was having problems with the Germans and Japanese breaking our codes, when Navajo Code Talkers were involved, using the Navajo language as code, it was never broken. Those who are interested in linguistics might be interested to know that the Navajo language comes from the same root as ancient Etruscan and Basque.

If you are interested in knowing more about this fascinating culture and the Dine themselves I would suggest starting with Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn-Chee murder mysteries. Unlike so many of his collogues, Hillerman is so accurate in his portrayal of the Navajo culture and so sympathetic to the culture that he is considered a friend of the Navajo people. From the experience of having traveled throughout the “Big Rez” I know that his books can be found almost anywhere there.

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About SJ Reidhead

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Jay

    Your review and additional information is quite informative. You’ve gotten me very interested in learning more about the Navajo. I’ll try to get a hold of this book.

    You mentioned Edward S. Curtis and his writings. Interesting enough, not many people actually have read much of what he wrote, but look at the pictures instead. If you’ve got an interest in learning more about what Curtis wrote, check the RSS feed URL included. Its about a Curtis slide show called “The Indian Picture Opera”. This is a movie remake of it. Some of the scenes pertain to the Navajo, and Canyon De Chelly. You might find it interesting.


  • Congratulations! This article has been selected as an Editors’ Pick.

  • Dagmar Plenk

    Thank you for the excellent comments on Hillerman’s work. I am a long-time Hillerman fan and have also literally traveled in the footsteps of Chee and Leaphorn, Indian Country map in hand.I just finished “Shape Shifter” and as I was reading felt somewhat confused about a few things:
    1. Since when has the town of Chinle become the town of Chinli?
    2. When did Joe Leaphorn move to Shiprock? Did I miss a book? (I think not)To the best of my knowledge Joe Leaphorn has been a long-time resident of Window Rock.
    3. From Dulce one would have to go south to Crownpoint, not north. What’s up with the directions here?
    Can someone enlighten me about these things? I cannot imagine that Mr. Hillerman would get north and south mixed up, or Window Rock and Shiprock for that matter. Is there an editor or printer who had a hand in this? Anyway, I found these things annoying in a truly great story.
    Thank you for allowing me to comment.

  • Ken

    Hillerman’s portryal of the American Left in his novels is not accurate and reflects his political biases.

    Also, last I heard, Republicans controlled the federal government from 1861 to 1885, the time of the so-called Indian Wars.