Seldom Disappointed: A Memoirby Tony Hillerman
When Tony Hillerman looks back at seventy-six years spent getting from hardtimes farm boy to bestselling author, he sees lots of evidence that Providence was poking him along. For example, when an absentminded Army clerk left him off the hospital ship taking the wounded home from France, the mishap put him on a collision course with a curing ceremony held for two… See more details below
When Tony Hillerman looks back at seventy-six years spent getting from hardtimes farm boy to bestselling author, he sees lots of evidence that Providence was poking him along. For example, when an absentminded Army clerk left him off the hospital ship taking the wounded home from France, the mishap put him on a collision course with a curing ceremony held for two Navajo Marines, thereby providing the grist for a writing career that now sees his books published in sixteen languages around the world and often on bestseller lists. Or, for example, when his agent told him his first novel was so bad that it would hurt both of their reputations, he nonetheless sent it to an editor, and that editor happened to like the Navajo stuff.
In this wry and whimsical memoir, Hillerman offers frequent backward glances at where he found ideas for plots of his books and the characters that inhabit them. He takes us with him to death row, where he interviews a man about to die in the gas chamber and details how this murderer became Colton Wolf in one of his novels. He relates how flushing a solitary heron from a sandbar caused him to convert Joe Leaphorn from husband to widower, and how his self-confessed bias against the social elite solved the key plot problem in A Thief of Time.
No child abuse stories here: The worst Hillerman can recall is being sent off to first grade (in a boarding school for Indian girls) clad in cute blue coveralls instead of the manly overalls his farm-boy peers all wore. Instead we get a good-natured trip through hard times in college; an infantry career in which he "rose twice to Private First Class" and also won a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart; and, afterward, work as a truck driver, chain dragger, journalist, professor, and "doer of undignified deeds" for two university presidents. All this is colored by a love affair (now in its fifty-fourth year) with Marie, which involved raising six children, most of them adopted. Using the gifts of a talented novelist and reporter, seventy-six-year-old Tony Hillerman draws a brilliant portrait not just of his life but of the world around him.
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Read an Excerpt
Papa's Melon - and What Happened Next
Outside on this New Mexico morning the dandelions add festive color to our yard while I sit inside casting back in my memory for autobiographically useful material. I intend this to be a recitation of good luck and happy outcomes but my mind turns up only fiascos and misfortunes.
The first memory popping up is of sitting on our front porch in Sacred Heart on a torrid Oklahoma Sunday watching Papa trudging up the section line carrying a huge Black Diamond watermelon. The Black Diamond is the most delicious fruit known to humanity and this was more than a normal Black Diamond. Papa had been nurturing it all summer on the Old Hillerman Place, picking off competitive melons and, when it wilted, helping it along with a couple of lard buckets of water in one of his agronomy experiments. The previous Thursday he had declared it ripe and rigged up a little arbor of sticks and leaves to give it cooling shade. He announced that after Mass Sunday he would carry it home, put it in a washtub of well water to chill it, and when the cool of twilight came we five Hillermans would eat it, inviting anyone who happened to pass on our dusty street to come in and have a slice.
Alas, it was not to be. During the long walk in the humid heat Papa's perspiration had made the melon slippery. As he reached for our gate latch it slid from his grasp, crashed to earth, and shattered. I recount this incident, trivial though it sounds, because seventy something years later I still recall my reaction was as much confirmation assorrow. At some level in my psyche even then I had sensed that this Black Diamond was too good to be true. I must have mentioned this to Mama when she was comforting us kids, because it's the first time I recall hearing her favorite aphorism.
"Blessed are those who expect little," Mama would say. "They are seldom disappointed."
I was about five then and probably didn't appreciate the doubled-edged irony in that beatitude. Looking back at life, I find I have often received more than I ever expected and suffered less than my share of disappointments.
The absolute earliest memory I finally managed to retrieve also involved a fiasco and, like so many to come, it produced a positive effect. I was sitting on one of those little hills red ants form of the tiny bits excavated from their tunnels. We were living on the Old Hillerman Place then, which means I was a toddler. I was scooping up sand and pouring it into the ants' exit hole. Why? Perhaps to block this passage and keep occupants from swarming out to attack me. Alas, those already out were crawling all over me, biting away. Before Mama heard my howls and rescued me, I had accumulated enough bites to make this incident a sort of family legend.
The next affair that pops from the memory bank is the dismal afternoon at Oklahoma A&M when I fell so soundly asleep in College Algebra that I toppled from my chair into the aisle and the professor sent me off to get a drop card. Turning away from that, I dredge up the terminal night of my career as an infantryman when I had gone along on a dinky little raid intended to capture two German prisoners. My role was to tote the stretcher on which we would carry a captive in case we wounded him. Instead I rode back on it myself. Part of the way, that is. The fellow carrying the front end stepped on an antipersonnel mine, which killed him and broke the stretcher. I'm a little hazy about the rest of that trip, recalling the final lap was made with me the passenger in a "fireman's carry" formed by a couple of friends, recalling being dropped into a frigid February creek, reviving while being strapped onto a stretcher on a jeep, and being aware I was going somewhere to get some sleep.
Next to come to mind was my original literary agent delivering her verdict on my first novel. Don't want to show it to anyone, she said. Why not? It's a bad book. Have to think of your reputation as well as mine. Why bad? It falls between the stools, halfway betwixt mainstream and mystery. No way to promote it. And where does the bookseller shelve it? Stick to nonfiction, said my agent. I can sell that for you. How about me rewriting it? Well, if you do, get rid of the Indian stuff.
Unpleasant as those affairs sound, every one was lucky in a way. The sleepy tumble into the classroom aisle resulted in an Algebra grade of W (for withdrawal) instead of the otherwise inevitable F with its negative effect on one's grade point average. The fiasco at the Alsatian village of Niefern provided the "Million-Dollar Wound" for which all sane members of World War II infantry rifle companies yearned and which got me home at just the right time. My agent's advice caused me to seek a second opinion, which sent me to Joan Kahn, the Einstein of mystery editors, who saw possibilities in the Navajo cultural material and subsequently forced me to be a better plotter than I had intended.
Even the lost contest with the ants had a good outcome. It established me as a kid from whom not much should be expected. It remains a vivid memory because through my boyhood I heard it described at countless family gatherings. It provoked grins and chuckles from uncles, fond head pats from aunts, and helped establish my reputation among cousins. They used it to illustrate my tendency to be impulsive ("Antnee didn't worry about those ants already out. He just tried to put the stopper in."), stubborn ("Antnee wasn't...Seldom Disappointed. Copyright © by Tony Hillerman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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