Monthly Archives: January 2012

Dear Tony Hillerman,

Coyote Waits

When my own life feels especially chaotic, I reach for one of your Joe Leaphorn mysteries in the hope of restoring a sense of order to my spinning soul. There is something stabilizing about your “legendary” Lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police. Perhaps it’s Leaphorn’s sensible, step-by-step approach to nabbing even the most elusive and nasty killer. It could also be his long and happy marriage. Or maybe it’s his resigned attitude towards the NTP’s bureaucracy, his years of experience, or his reasoned way of working with his younger subordinate, Jim Chee. All I can tell you is that when my own life caroms out of control, Joe Leaphorn is my go-to man. A sexy bad boy he’s not. But Leaphorn uncovers and catches killers without my having to worry about him drinking and smoking himself to death like I do when I read about the PIs in noir crime stories.

The lieutenant may not make my pulse accelerate, but your stories about him do. That’s because Leaphorn and Chee are sleuthing in the stunning terrain of the

Black Mesa, NM

Southwest, a vast haunted land full of secrets. Both officers spend hours each day and sometimes each night too in separate cars driving from a crime scene to the Tribal police station or the courthouse or into the desert to interview a suspect or witness or follow up on a clue.  I first set foot in New Mexico in the early Nineties when my husband and I went to a wedding in Albuquerque. Gaping out our car window, I experienced déjà vu. I’d already explored those Anasazi ruins, the Rio Grande, the mountains, mesas and miles of road in your books. So that day in our rented Chevrolet I was riding shotgun with Leaphorn, keeping an eye out for the skinwalkers, shape changers, and ghosts that the Diné believe still haunt the area. I almost forgot the wedding and we came close to arriving late.

Navajo Hogan

Part of my ongoing fascination with your mysteries comes from how you infuse them with traditional tribal beliefs and customs and how those often conflict and/or contrast with the ways of white people. How you use this tension between insiders and outsiders and between traditionalists and modernists makes the familiar mystery format crackle with new vitality and was very much on my mind when I

Navajo Healing Way Sand Painting

began writing The Bones and the Book. So when readers of early drafts told me, “It’s a good story, but it’s too Jewish,” I took solace in remembering how your agent told you your first novel, The Blessing Way, would be a best seller if you’d only “get rid of the Indian stuff.” In the work of a lesser writer that “Indian stuff” might be arcane and off-putting, but in your novels it’s integral to the story and the characters, so it’s both gripping and accessible. I kept your example in mind as I revised.

There’s at least one more thing I really enjoy about your books. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are mentor and sidekick, boss and subordinate, Holmes and Watson.

Holmes and Watson

But those prototypical two are doomed to forever replay their roles of genius and stooge. Not so with Leaphorn and Chee. Their responses to each other run the gamut—rivalry, respect, resentment—and vary day by day, year by year, case by case. Leaphorn and Chee gradually and realistically learn to appreciate and exploit one another’s strengths to forge a satisfying and effective partnership that continues to evolve even after, in Coyote Waits, Leaphorn retires. You knew about male bonding before it became a TV and movie cliché.

So when I write mysteries, yours are still among the models I use. I too want to create believable characters who forge recognizable relationships with one another in a setting rich in cultural conundrums that fuel conflict and challenge my detective. And in The Bel Barrett Mysteries as well as later in The Bones and the Book, I’ve dreamed up amateur sleuths who are, at heart, neither sirens nor shrews, but nice, Jewish girls grown up.

Thank you again for your inspiring stories.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under mystery

Dear Toni Morrison,

The Bluest Eye

Thank you for your soul-searing books. The Bluest Eyecame out in 1970, the year my daughter was born. I thought of it as one of those new baby gifts that the infant

will one day grow into. She did, but meanwhile I read it over and over. By 1970, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and Brown had already taught me what coming of age was

Original Barbie

like for African-American boys. What was it like for girls?  You taught me. In The Bluest Eye I identified with those little girls and grown women who longed to look white because white, not black, was beautiful. You make it clear how this supremacy of whiteness privileges some while condemning others, like Pecola and her mother, to misery. I reread The Bluest Eye most recently after my daughter’s daughter became the delighted owner of Rebecca, the pug-nosed Jewish American Girl doll. I noted (to myself, of course) that in spite of her period wardrobe and her Lower Eastside back story, Becky sure doesn’t look Jewish unless, like me, she had a nose job.

With each book of yours, I learned a lot of other things too. I’m especially grateful for Beloved, set in Ohio shortly after the Civil War and peopled by former slaves haunted by recollections of their years as property. Beloved made vivid and unforgettable to me the often used phrase “legacy of slavery.”  Before Beloved, I’d understood that legacy mostly in abstract terms like “separated families” and “forced illiteracy” and “overseer cruelty.” After Beloved, when I hear or read of this legacy, I envision men and women with iron bits distorting and tearing their mouths as, worked like horses, they haul loads. I see black men in flames dangling from trees and a grown white man forcing a lactating black mother to suckle him before beating her bloody. I see a mother slashing the throat of her own baby girl rather than allowing the child to be captured by slave catchers and returned to captivity. Such memories are the unspeakable legacy of slavery that you, by speaking of them in your books, make your readers confront.

Victim of Slavery

Homeless in USA

But in Beloved as in all your work, I got much more than a history lesson. I also got a lesson in storytelling: how to weave cultural elements, back stories, and symbols seamlessly into narrative, to alternate points of view, to write pitch perfect dialogue and description that matters: “There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors . If you are put out, you go somewhere else. If you are outdoors, there is no place to go. . . .Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life . . . struggling to hang on or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment.”


And Beloved is also a ghost story. Your haunted characters all believe in ghosts, so I suspend my own disbelief to enter their troubled world where a baby ghost and a ghostly teen kick up a ruckus. Inspired, in The Bones and the Book, I created a Nineteenth Century immigrant girl haunted by ghosts from her past who fights the growing conviction that displacement and loss have transformed her into a ghost.

I’m glad you won the Nobel Prize and so grateful to you for telling stories that keep me turning pages even while I face up to some hard facts about American history which is, after all, a legacy all Americans share.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction