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Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir    by Tony Hillerman order for
Seldom Disappointed
by Tony Hillerman
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

This memoir by famed mystery author Tony Hillerman is a must read for almost anyone. Long-time mystery fans will love learning more about one of their favorite authors and how he developed his series starring Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. But Seldom Disappointed offers much more than that. It is an uplifting book by a man who has found himself 'seldom disappointed' in the wide variety of experiences, both good and bad, which life has offered him.

The author gives us a look at slices of American history, and life experiences from a childhood in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression, to the harrowing experiences of an army grunt (infantryman) during World War II, and on to post-war journalism in the Southwest. Then there is a journalism professor's life during the 1960s and 1970s when the author feels that students were more eager to learn about life and to challenge existing ideas, than their more materialistic successors in the 1980s.

Hillerman comes from a proud working class background, growing up in a poor but very happy home in Oklahoma during the 1920s and 1930s. His parents' love and teachings imbued him with an optimistic attitude and a deep religious faith. They gave him a solid foundation for life and prepared him for whatever it had to offer, including enlisting in the army at seventeen to have his 'great adventure' in the war.

After it was over the author went into journalism on the recommendation of a home town newspaper editor who had published his war-time letters to his mother. Hillerman feels this experience taught him to write and advises would-be authors to consider it. Shortly after the war he was married, and his over fifty year marriage to Marie continues to be the central focus of his life. Along the way he and Marie had one child and then adopted five more, to whom they passed on the loving lessons learned from their own parents.

A continuing theme in Hillerman's life has been serendipity and being open to unexpected opportunities. A chance encounter with returning Navajo soldiers at the end of the war and the opportunity to attend an Enemy Way curing ceremony stoked a life-long interest in the Navajo culture. Having attended school with Indians and played with Indian friends during childhood, Hillerman was already very comfortable with them. Once his interest in the Navajos was piqued he researched their culture extensively before starting his mystery-writing career.

Hillerman's Blessing Way (published in the early 1970s) was one of the first mysteries to break out of the traditional hard-boiled trend, and it drew many more readers into the genre. The combination of a solid, well-written mystery with a chance to learn about Navajo culture was irresistible to legions (luckily Hillerman did not pay attention to his first agent who advised him that the book was okay but he should get rid of all the Indian parts).

It was a real pleasure to read the memoir of a decent man who has lead an interesting life. In it Hillerman applies his story-telling talents to illustrate aspects of the last fifty years of American experience. We could all benefit by adopting his optimistic attitudes to value what we have and avoid bemoaning what we do not. One example of this comes later in the book when Hillerman mentions briefly that he was hospitalized for a lengthy period of time for cancer treatments. There is no other mention of the illness, only the comment that it was great to be away from the ringing telephone so that he could develop more story ideas.

I listened to the book on tape (available from Recorded Books), read by Tony Hillerman himself with his Oklahoma accent. Hearing it directly from the author enhanced the pleasure of this memoir even more for me.

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