Monday, June 14, 2021

Review of a Navajo Mystery Novel: Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman

Winner of the 1988 Anthony Award for Best Novel

Winner of the 1987 Spur Award for Best Western Novel

Note: I'm not much of a mysteries reader, however, I needed a break from the 3 long histories I am working my way through, including one on the English in the 16th century, so decided to get back to a Tony Hillerman novel, another one set on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

SKINWALKERS by Tony Hillerman Rating 7/3

The 2 central characters are Navajo police officers, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, both of whom graduated from the University of New Mexico.

That is also where Tony Hillerman earned his master's degree in English. And he later joined the faculty in the journalism department.

I've speculated about whether or not he may have actually met a Navajo attending the university, also.

The first time I read Skinwalkers, years ago, I hated it, mostly because of all the heavy emphasis upon Navaho witchcraft, extensive superstition, etc. As I recall, after that I took a dimmer view of Hillerman’s novels because they kept seeming to bring up the theme in later books too.


I realize that all of us humans have a tendency toward irrationalism. But the extensive beliefs of witchcraft in the 20th century by many Navajos shocked me. Also, previously I had found out that the Navajo back in the 19th century when they had been oppressed by white invaders were actually violent raiders like the Apaches, not only innocent victims of U.S. Government abuse and oppression.

It's sort of like years ago discovering that Columbus, the famous explorer, who even has a holiday in the U.S. named after him, was a enslaver and mass killer! And that even some leaders of the Cherokee Nation were slave owners. History is far more complicated and contradictory than most people realize.
Still, having said all those particulars, I did enjoy some of this 2nd reading of the narrative. Since I knew the witchcraft theme and plot details were going to be there, I just let them slide by as I kept focused on the suspense, complicated plot. and Hillerman's amazing descriptions of NM settings and weather events.

Unfortunately, the 2nd half of the novel, especially the last 50 pages—its climax, villain-revelation, etc. are very UNDERWHELMING, and unconvincing, and blah.

Dr. Yellowhorse’s socially-inspired fraud, lying, deception, use of witchcraft superstitions of his Navajo patients don’t seem in any way a convincing reason for him to murder the 4 he did, and his attempted murdering of Officer Chee.

Also, it’s very weird that Chee and Leaphorn aren’t going to pursue and arrest the patients who because of Yellowhorse’s lies murdered others! HUH? Not only is that dereliction of duty, immoral and unjust, it is contrary to criminal justice.

I suppose their decision is somehow based in Navajo culture. But it is definitely a wrong decision. Another reason the book fails.

SIDE NOTE: I didn’t even plan to ever read Skinwalkers again, but Betsy and I watched a TV movie of the story, so I wanted to read the novel to try and understand some parts of the plot that were unclear in the movie.

But SHOCK! I quickly discovered that about the only connection between the 2 very different stories is the title, witchcraft, and Chee and Leaphorn!

Yes, I know that often Hollywood changes stories drastically when they make movies of novels. Koontz famous statement comes to mind about how Hollywood so butchered his great novel Watchers at least 3 times. He said that if Hollywood didn’t make another adaption of his book, he would know that there is a god;-).

STILL, I can’t fathom why the movie, Skinwalkers is so totally different in themes, central plots, and characters from Hillerman’s novel. About the only character who is the same is the abandoned Manx cat, evidently left by a tourist who comes, scared of coyotes, to Chee’s place for food and shelter.

Except maybe, the director and screenwriter also saw the fatal failure of the novel’s central plot, climax, and ending. So, they vastly changed all of those things.

I do think that the movie’s efforts are far better than the poor central plot villain, climax, and ending of the book.

Here’s a few of the striking contrasts:

1. The movie starts out with a Navaho Shaman 1. In the book, NONE of that exists with a distinctive headband, Instead, almost immediately, an starting to open the wooden back gate of his unknown assailant fires shot gun truck, when suddenly out of the darkness, blasts at bed level into Chee’s a flash of movement—and his up-reached trailer, trying to murder him! This arm at the shoulder is pierced all the way plot episode doesn’t happen in the through to the wood of the tail gate! movie until much later.
He dies.

2. In the movie, there are 3 sets of 3 NONE OF THESE ARE IN THE BOOK! key visual plot characters There are no shamans.
images/details: 3 headbands with 3 visual images; 3 shamans wear these.

and ONE central image: that of an ancient native American pictograph that is painted by the murdered man in blood on the ground with a head with horns! This is very emphasized and repeated.

3. Both the movie and the book oppose most Navajo superstition, especially belief in witchcraft, (though not the positive “Blessing Way” beliefs of Chee). HOWEVER, via completely different contrary plots, the book and movie show the extreme danger of extremism against superstition!

Because, even though sincere Navajo witchcraft superstition often leads to harm, abuse, and killing, a very strong secular reaction or a secular use of superstition can lead to the same bad immoral and unjust actions as ignorant belief.

In the book, the doctor Stone In the movie, the doctor Yellowhorse, murders the 3 shamans has 4 people murdered, and attempts who gave his father false to have Chee murdered to cover up claims of healing and failed to his bogus use of Navajo superstition have him see a doctor, so his in order to improve Navajos’ health father died.

In general, and to enrich himself via fraud.
4. In the movie, the actual central villain, far Same as above.
more than the revengeful doctor, is the Manufacturing company’s past use of lead that so harms native Americans, including the 12-year- old boy who is being abused by his cruel father and Is hanging out with gang members.

This shows how, not only superstition can kill, This shows how the ends never justify But so can scientific technology wrongly used!

the means—lying, conning with superstition, and even murder.
5. In the book, both Leaphorn and Chee get shot.

In the movie, Chee gets hit with a Stone/rock by the doctor.
6. In the book, Leaphorn is almost Sherlock-Holmes’ In the movie, Chee has to, it appears, intellectually brilliant observations and conclusions, help inform the ignorant secular and though he is still solidly Navajo, he takes a very Leaphorn about Navajo ways and Secular dim view of superstition.

Traditional beliefs
7. A significant thematic irony is that the secular Navajo Janet Peet, legal-lawyer gets guilty individuals who Chee arrested released from jail!

In the movie it was 3 carjackers who stole the car of foreign tourists. Even though they are guilty, Peet gets them released because Chee arrested them on federal land, not actually on the Reservation.

But in the book, Peet believes in a stranger’s phone call; so she gets the Navajo that Chee has arrested for admitting to having shot at another because she thinks that the alleged shooter is innocent, and that Chee is guilty of false imprisonment.

It turns out the phone call was a lie. And the caller then murders the alleged shooter.

IF Peet hadn’t used legal methods, the Navajo that Chee had arrested would have remained safely in jail.

8. Another irony is that in the book, Chee is called to go out to a stranger, Goldtooth’s, and conduct one of his first Blessing Way rituals a positive belief of the Navajo to help her recover. He is very excited to do this.

BUT actually, Goldtooth is a Navajo woman who has died of a fatal illness 3 months before. The request is a killer’s ploy to get Chee out in the desert to murder him, believing that Chee is a witch who has made her baby very ill. Only if Chee is killed can her infant be saved.

In contrast, in the movie, the accounts of his Blessing Way ritual are different, (though I don’t remember the details now. My short-term memory is getting terrible:-(

And there are far more, intriguing aspects, details, and themes in both the movie and the book; maybe I will remember and document more later.

WOW, I am having so much intellectual fun thinking about and doing this literary analysis and compare and contrast and themes, etc.

I wish I was still teaching. This would be a marvelous assignment for an honors or bright college prep class of juniors

Evaluation: B/D-

-Dan Wilcox

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