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Hillerman stands alone in spotlight of new novel

With strong characters, she emerges from father’s shadow

Anne Hillerman continues her father’s legacy while forging her own literary path with the release of her second novel, Rock with Wings. She will sign and read excerpts from her book Saturday evening at the Smiley Building.

Hillerman makes the series her own by focusing on Navajo police officer Bernadette Manuelito, a fiercely independent female protaganist.

Bernadette (Bernie) and her husband of two years, Sgt. Jim Chee, are going on their first vacation since their honeymoon. Chee’s cousin Paul is opening a photo tour business in Monument Valley and could use their help finishing his guest hogan, a round Navajo/Diné structure, in exchange for free room and board. He also wants to take them on his tour to get their feedback on his work. It seems like a win-win situation for everybody.

During the first evening, Bernie gets a call from her elderly mother’s neighbor, who says that Bernie’s younger sister, Darlene, never came home the previous night. Because the neighbor has to leave, she is worried about the mother being alone. So putting aside their plans, Bernie and Chee leave Monument Valley and go to her mother’s house in Toadlena. When they arrive, they discover that Darlene got into an altercation with the police and has been arrested.

Because Bernie needs to stay with her mother, Chee agrees to accept a temporary job with the Monument Valley substation to earn extra money. The position involves the seemingly simple task of keeping tabs on a Hollywood movie crew shooting a horror flick on tribal land. Chee’s job immediately becomes complicated when a member of the crew is reported missing. The desert at night can be a dangerous place for an unsuspecting person from Los Angeles, so Chee quickly swings into investigative mode.

At the same time, Bernie is trying to cope with multiple problems involving both family and work. The work issue began with a simple traffic stop Bernie made the night before they were to leave on their now-aborted vacation. She stopped a speeding motorist who seemed to be unusually nervous, which made her decide to search his car. She was puzzled when the only things she found besides a gun were two boxes of dirt. Convinced the dirt must hide something – a new drug, or other contraband – Bernie confiscated the two boxes and sent them to be tested.

When Bernie can’t figure out what the driver was hiding, she turns to retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn for inspiration. But getting help from Leaphorn has been made difficult by a near-fatal brain injury that occurred in the previous novel and from which he slowly is recovering. As luck would have it, Leaphorn, who still is unable to speak, now can communicate and conduct research using a new laptop computer.

At Bernie’s mother’s house, Darlene is making the family situation worse. Bernie’s mother is in poor health and needs someone around to help. But like some of the other young Diné living on the reservation, Darlene is having difficulty with responsibility, too much alcohol and a lack of direction in her life.

Meanwhile, Jim suddenly is dealing with a job where the criminal activity has escalated along with the body count. Big city crime has reared its ugly head among the beauty of the revered formations at Monument Valley. A major concern for the tribal police is the sudden appearance of a new grave, complete with bones.

Hillerman depicts the raw, arid beauty and mystique of the Diné homeland with keen observation and respect. The additional setting of Gouldings Lodge in the valley, where movie stars stayed during the heyday of the Western movie-makings of John Ford, enhances the mood of this latest adventure. Hillerman’s characters are amusing, riveting, charismatic, solid and believable. It is clear that with Rock With Wings, Anne Hillerman has hit her stride and emerges from her father’s shadow and into the spotlight on her own.

sierrapoco@yahoo.com. Leslie Doran is a Durango freelance reviewer.

If you go

Author Anne Hillerman will present a reading and signing of her book Rock With Wings at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Smiley Theater, 1309 East Third Ave. Tickets are $8 or free with advance purchase of the book. For information, call 247-1438 or visit www.mariasbookshop.com.