Book Twelve is mostly about the Trojan War. But instead of describing the war itself, as Ovid’s predecessors Virgil and Homer did, Ovid describes it as yet another brawl breaking out at a wedding reception (see Book Five).
Next is a seemingly unconnected story about Rumour. I’m particularly fond of the way Ovid describes Rumour’s home.
… who chose to live on a mountain, with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door. … the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever it hears. … (lines 43 – 45, 47 – 48)
There are 23 lines which exquisitely describe this home and its denizens. This is why I continue with Metamorphoses, the language can be so beautiful and interesting.
Then there’s the story of Cycnus, yet another man who metamorphosizes into a swan. This Cycnus brags to Achilles about needing no armor. Comically, Achilles keeps trying to kill Cycnus by throwing his spear multiple times and always missing. Even more comically, while Cycnus is boasting he can’t be killed, Achilles strangles Cycnus with the strap of his own helmet.
The after battle story telling around the fire leads into Nestor’s story of the transgender Caenis/Caeneus.
His exploits won him renown, the more surprisingly so as he started life as a woman. (line 174 – 175)
The story of Caenis makes sense, since she was raped by Neptune who offers her anything she wants. She asks to be made something other than a woman so that she will never have to suffer rape again. (lines 199 – 203)
The core of Book Twelve is “The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs,” Ovid’s comical version of the Trojan War. At the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia, the drunken centaur, Eurytus, decides he’s going to make off with the bride. Which never goes over well. There erupts an epic brawl in which weapons are improvised from the furniture and table settings.
One line in particular caught my fancy. There’s a centaur passed out drunk in the midst of this chaos with a cup of wine spilling from his hand. A lapith sees this and takes action.
Now you must mix your wine with Stygian water! (line 322)
Book Twelve ends with the death of Achilles, as cowardly Paris’ arrow is guided by Apollo through Achilles’ heel.
If Priam, after the death of Hector, had cause for rejoicing, this surely was it. So Achilles who’d vanquished the mightiest heroes was vanquished himself by a coward who’d stolen the wife of his Greek host. (lines 607 – 609)
The death of Achilles ends with preparations for the dispensing of Achilles’ belongings.
In my research, I keep being reminded that the Romans were a blood-thirsty lot and all these tales of battles and wars would have been greatly appreciated. Even as I caution myself of this, I can’t help wincing over the detailed gory events. Eyeballs dangling onto faces just isn’t a very nice thing to think about, no matter how much the antagonist might have deserved something horrible.
Another week gone by. That’s profound, in a completely obvious “duh” kinda way isn’t it?
The biggest thing to happen is that my patrons can no longer afford to be my patrons. As if trying to find a job and asking monthly for money was easy. I am neither surprised or upset with this news. Everyone has the right to take care of themselves, and my patrons helped me as long as they could. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared about money, there’s enough for about a month. No, I don’t know what comes next or what I’m going to do.
Actually, I do know what I’m going to do. Keep writing. There’s a paid writing assignment about to hit, there will be more. For now, I just keep doing what I’m doing and trusting the universe is going to continue taking care of me as it has.
On the reading front, I finally finished Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Reviews/recaps/commentary on each book will be published for the next few weeks on Tuesdays. It was a challenge, but one I’m glad to have taken on. I feel even more erudite and well-read now. Or something.
I haven’t weighed in much on the hullabaloo over the publication of Harper Lee’s “latest” book, Go Set a Watchman. Basically, my opinion is that the provenance is iffy at best, and it just seemed like there were too many people trying to take advantage of a woman who swore she would never publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. She is very old now and nearly blind and deaf, I don’t see how anyone thinks she gave her blessings to this endeavor. My curiosity is not great enough to want to read it. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and I’m not willing to let my memories of it be tanked.
Having said all of that, if you want to read it, please get down with your bad self. Because I don’t want to, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or that I don’t want you to.
We had been disappointed in the way the book was marketed from the beginning. We knew the history of Go Set A Watchman and it wasn’t congruent with the marketing: “Harper Lee’s New Novel” “with many of your favorite characters from To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Whether you agree or not, there’s something to be said for retailers who stick to their principles.
In other bookish news, I’ve been following the Hugo nominations controversy with a somewhat jaded and amused eye. Basically, it comes down to a bunch of white, male SFMil (science fiction military) writers deciding that the Hugos have been highjacked in past years by people who are not white, not male, possibly not even heterosexual, and don’t write SFMil. Oh, then there’s the whole “social justice warrior” thing being batted around. Whatever that means.
Never mind that one of the most revered writers and founders of science fiction wrote characters who were diverse and took on “SJW” issues. As many bow to Robert Heinlein as the manliest man SF writer who wrote SFMil there ever was, they are so wrong I can’t help but laugh. Or, there’s Frank Herbert who wrote Dune, one of the greatest SF books of all time, which main them is environmentalism.
The Hugos have always been a popularity contest, a showcase of SF fandoms’ favourite fiction, and skewing the lists for political point-scoring makes a mockery of them. Whether the Sad Puppies win the day or not, it’s the awards’ legacy that will suffer, along with the future work that would have benefited from their now damaged prestige. That’s what is truly sad.
I left organized fandom years ago for many reasons. Mostly I’m too mundane for fandom and too fannish for the mundanes. I did not find fandom as welcoming as others have, mostly because my tastes don’t particularly match any given group. Nor do I understand cosplay or gaming. This is not to say I disapprove or feel left out. I do not.
The best thing about fandom is “ZOMG, I have to show you this thing!” The worst thing is the gatekeeping which sometimes creeps in when someone doesn’t know episode titles for their favorite television show, or hasn’t haunted the internet reading fanfic about their favorite characters. It got tiresome explaining to someone I barely knew why I was reading something not of the genre, or hadn’t read every single book by the Guest of Honor, who was frequently someone I hadn’t heard of before.
There’s only so much time in my life and only so much energy I have to devote to my many interests. Plus, introvert. If fandom is where your people are, then do it. Hang out with your tribe and be your very own fan. But, please stop gatekeeping, especially of women fans. That’s just rude.
You asked your readers to write a thousand words on why we write. My honest answer is, “I don’t really know.” Truly. Like most writers, I’ve written off and on ever since I could pick up a pencil and make words come out of it.
I couldn’t tell you why I feel compelled to sit down and write every day. What I do know is that since I made the commitment to myself to put my butt in the chair every single day and do something creative, something has shifted. Profoundly.
The only mentors I’ve had are the authors who bare their souls about their process, and what it takes to be a writer. There was no parental encouragement, no teachers taking me under their wings, nothing of that sort. I would write, then I would set it aside. Then I would try again.
Two years ago, I got laid off. My job was eliminated based on a salesperson’s promise to someone who had no idea what I did. At the time, I thought my path was photography, and an advocacy blog for young women in the form of letters to my nieces.
The photography wasn’t selling, and it was hard to find my writing voice in an overcrowded field of advocates. None of the resumes I sent out were getting responses. I was running out of money and had cashed in everything I could.
On top of this, a very dear friend of over 30 years, who was more family to me than anything, was dying from terminal cancer. I had no energy to do anything except recognize I needed to break out of the loop I was in, even while I was perpetuating the loop.
Books have always been my solace. In a tumultuous childhood, reading was the one thing I could do guaranteed not to get me in trouble. A few months ago, a book fell into my life which literally changed my life. A cliche I wish I could avoid. Anne Lamott‘s, bird by bird, contained an essay about “shitty first drafts.”
All my life I’d heard and read the worn out axiom, “A writer writes.” And the advice to just put one word after another, never mind the self-critic. I would nod in agreement and then get caught up with the internal naysayer who told me what I was writing was silly and stupid; that no one would ever want to read it, not even me.
But Anne Lamott said it in a way that got under my skin. “Wait, wait, wait,” I thought. “You mean… you’re seriously telling me to just write for the joy of it? To write because I want to, every day, with no thought as to who might be reading it? That if I don’t like it I can toss it and no one will ever know?” This was like the magic incantation I’d been waiting for.
I can’t tell you why it was this book and this advice which finally took root. Many writing mentors I’d never met had been saying the very same thing everywhere I looked. But somehow, Anne Lamott is the one who got through.
Nothing else was working. I was still unemployed with no assets, surviving only through the good graces of my dead friend’s family. I was supremely miserable and couldn’t see a way out. Photography seemed like a broken relationship I couldn’t restart.
What the hell? I’d commit to butt in chair every day doing something creative. It didn’t matter for how long, or how many words. It just mattered that every damned day, no matter my mood, I would be creative. No word counts. Just me and the computer.
When I didn’t know what to write about, I wrote about the books I read. Then I started writing other things. Little 500 word things, developed because I wanted the discipline of writing something I liked within 500 words.
Around July 4th, I posted a temper tantrum on Facebook. There was an interview that I had absolutely nailed, but someone fumbled the communication between hiring manager, company HR and the temp agency. I lost the job for no other reason than someone misconstrued something I said and would not believe otherwise. When the recruiter told me, “I’m sorry we lost this job for you,” I didn’t know what to do.
A long-time friend in Australia read my tantrum and contacted me via Skype. We had a really long talk in which I cried and told her everything. And then she said the words I’d been waiting for someone to say to me, “I’ll be your mentor.”
She completely understood where I was coming from and that I recognized I needed to take small steps towards my goal of making money being creative. Or rather, the goal of paying the bills with something I loved instead of just another office job. Only I didn’t know what those steps were or how to take them.
“You are a writer,” she said. “You write so well, this is what you should be doing. Seriously. I’ll help.” After two years of praying for a mentor, here she was. Not quite a month later, I’ve established a reasonable publishing schedule and have a calendar reminding me of what’s in progress. I’m happier than I’ve been in some time.
I’m not any less broke or worried about paying rent and bills. But I’m writing every single day, even the ones I don’t feel like writing on. And my mentor is just a Skype away. And it’s led to my first paid writing job, writing blog posts for her because her business is successful enough that she doesn’t have time and can afford to hire someone to do it for her.
Of all the ways to make money, writing wasn’t one I’d considered. I was just writing for me. I was compelled to write, it makes me happy.
Maybe the reason I write is that simple, it makes me happy.
Book Eleven starts with the death of Orpheus at the hands of the “wild Ciconian women.” They tear Orpheus to pieces because after Eurydice’s second death he refused to get involved with women, but rather immature boys (see Book Ten). At last, Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited in the underworld and can walk side by side.
Bacchus punishes the women by turning them into trees. Further, he is so displeased with Thrace that he takes a band of dancers and heads for the kingdom of Midas.
After Midas has performed a good deed for one of Bacchus’ followers, he is offered any gift he wants. Ovid portrays Midas as a slow-witted buffoon, greedy with little thought. He asks for the “golden touch,” so that anything he touches will turn into gold. It’s not too long before the misfortune of this boon is found.
Literally, anything Midas touches turns to gold. His food, his servants, his clothing, his … everything. He begins to starve because he can’t eat gold. So he asks Bacchus to take the “gift” away and return him to normal. But Midas isn’t done being stupid.
When he’s observing a musical contest between Pan and Apollo, he calls the decision of Apollo as the better musician “unfair.” Which, of course, pisses Apollo right off. Midas’ reward for this opinion? Donkey ears. Apollo gives him donkey ears, which Midas tries to hide from everyone.
Right there, that’s the origin story of the phrase “the Midas touch” and the meaning of having donkey ears as stupid. I love learning things like that.
I am mostly going to skip the details of the story about Peleus and Thetis because it’s another story about rape, and it’s becoming easier to get fed up with these stories. However, it’s an important story because it leads to the argument which began the Trojan War.
The story of Peleus and Thetis is also important because it leads into the story of Peleus being exiled for the murder of Phocus, his half-brother. Peleus winds up in the court of Ceyx, in Thessaly.
There’s a story about the giant wolf rampaging on the beach eating and destroying all the livestock. After the wolf has been turned into a marble statue, King Ceyx decides that he must consult the Apollonian oracle at Claros.
This involves a sea voyage, Ceyx’s wife, Alcyone pleads with him to go overland instead.
Just tell me you’re journeying overland, then I’ll only miss you and won’t be also afraid. I’ll fret without being frightened. But no, you are going by sea, and that is the ugly picture which fills me with terror. I recently noticed a wrecked ship’s boards on the shore, and I’ve often read names of graves containing no bodies. (lines 424 = 429)
And then the mother of all storms hits. This being an epic poem featuring Roman mythology, I should rephrase that. A great big storm happens, caused by nature, not by gods (surprise!). Everyone on board is killed, the ship itself is destroyed. Ceyx dies wishing he could see his wife Alcyone again.
Meanwhile, Alcyone is at home weaving new clothes for them to wear once Ceyx returns. She has no idea that disaster has struck. She goes to Juno’s temple frequently to pray for her husband’s safe return.
The catch with Juno is that praying for dead people is considered unclean, and she no longer wants her temple polluted by Alcyone’s prayers. Juno’s solution is to send a messenger to Sleep telling him to send a dream lifelike enough for Alcyone to know that her beloved husband is dead.
Iris arrives at the palace of Somnus, and delivers her message. Sleep rouses himself long enough to choose Morpheus:
… the master mimic, the quickest of all to capture a person’s walk, his facial expressions and tone of voice; he’ll also adopt the original’s clothing and typical language. (lines 634 – 637)
Morpheus enters Alcyone’s dreams and convinces her of the truth her husband is dead. In deep grief, she returns to the spot where they said their last goodbye. Off in the distance is something which looks like a body.
As it gets closer, she recognizes it as Ceyx and jumps onto a groyne (new word!) to get a better look. She is turned into a bird, and flies to Cyex’s body to try to kiss him. He too is turned into a bird and they fly off together.
This story, while sad, is refreshing in its portrayal of love and devotion. It happens sometimes in Ovid.
Working with my first client to create images and write a blog post for her. So nice to be able to work as a creative person for people who want me to try different things. I love this life.
An interview which didn’t turn into an offer. Shunned by my temp agency again. Okay, Universe, I hear you. I don’t belong in an office. Please bring more clients so I can pay my bills.
Shift change at the career center. I will be no longer attending “success team” meetings. They weren’t a good fit for me because I’m looking for creative work. Wonderful support and encouragement from my career advisors.
Writing, writing, writing. Publishing schedule is set for:
Sundays = Personal Log
Tuesdays = Review
Thursday = 500 Words or Photographic Evidence
A lot of research and installation of stuff on the back end to make things easier both for me and my readers.
And, apparently, Chuck Wendig wants 1,000 words on why I write.
Meet my friend Don, who died too young from cancer at the age of 57 in 2014. We were friends for over 30 years and I’ve never felt so helpless as when he was dying.
Throughout our lives together Don challenged me to be better. Whether thinking through a problem, or how to take a breath and not to take things so personally. I learned by watching, and he changed me greatly.
Over the years he pulled me through scrapes with a patience and generosity that sometimes made me stand in awe. We frustrated each other, laughed together and helped each other.
He’s the only friend I’ve had who would sit across the table from me and read while having a burger at our favorite place. We both loved to read and we were that comfortable with each other. It just seemed natural for this to be one of our shared activities.
One of his great loves was playing blues bass guitar. When he joined a band, I became the band photographer because it was a way to practice my own craft. As members came and went, I watched him guide and mentor many of them.
One was a singer with a great raw talent whose confidence would get shaken occasionally. He would buy CDs of the great blues singers, including Candye Kane, and tell her, “This is what you need to learn to do. This is how the greats sing.” He taught her about the blues in general and sat with her while she learned new songs. He treated many others with the same mentorship.
Ten years before he died, I moved into my own apartment. Often he would contact me to say, “If you’re not listening to/reading/watching xyz, you really should be. I think you’d like it.” He was almost always right. Almost.
As maddening as he could be, Don taught patience, compassion, and a level of generosity far beyond what I already knew. We often talked about what friends did for each other, especially when one was in crisis mode. I would tell people that of course I was going to help Don, it’s what friends do. There were things I would rather not have done for him (a certain pee bottle comes to mind), and I did them anyway because he needed me.
He reinforced the notion that true friends will do everything in their power for each other. In learning to be the friend I wanted, belief in myself became stronger, and the friends I wanted to have began appearing. I strove to be more kind, patient, compassionate, tolerant and generous. I can’t imagine living my life any other way. I’m not sure Don understood how instrumental he was in these lessons.
As his epitaph, Don’s father chose, “A gentle man.” How perfect. Don was indeed gentle, and he is missed. I give thanks for all the things he taught me and strive to continue living the lessons I learned from him.
If someone were to ask me if I thought they should read Metamorphoses, my response would be “should? no.” No one “should” read anything. But I would definitely encourage them to try. This book is not for everyone, it is big and challenging. It can be a struggle, there have been times when I’ve just wanted to walk away from it and say, “I tried.” And yet I keep slugging it out.
It is worth trying. It is worth wrestling with. Metamorphoses has influenced twenty centuries of western culture and art. There are recognizable stories and imagery.
Be gentle with yourself when the going gets tough. And if you find you cannot, or do not want to, finish, be gentle. This is a tough book, and it requires stamina and vigilance and devotion. There is no shame in putting it down. Metamorphoses can be graphically violent and filled with stories which test the reader. It is also filled with beautiful language and relates tales of the Roman gods, and the mortals who worship them. It can be silly and uplifting. To me, it is a challenge worth pursuing.
My edition comes with a two page overview of each book, and excellent end-notes. The translation is easy to read. Even then, I turn to others’ expertise to better understand what I’m reading. There is no way I could read this book without help.
Before we meet Orpheus, famous bard and poet, who loses his wife, Eurydice twice in Book 10, mention must be made of the irony that it opens with an invitation to a wedding. It’s not the wedding itself which is ironic, it is that Hymen, the god of marriage ceremonies is invited. The very thing society has cherished in women as proof of their virtue is male.
Eurydice is walking to the altar when she is bit in the ankle by a snake and dies from its venom. Orpheus follows her to the underworld to plead for her return. Everyone is so moved by his song and tears that even the Furies cry real tears for the first time. Proserpina and Hades release Eurydice with the admonition that Orpheus is to walk in front of her on the way and not look back until they are both out of the underworld.
I’m sure you see this coming. Orpheus reaches outside a few steps ahead of his wife and looks back waiting for her to come even with him. Since she is still in the underworld, she disappears back into its depths and Orpheus loses her the second time.
Sounds like Lot in Genesis in the Old Testament, doesn’t it? Only it’s Lot’s wife who is told not to turn back and look. Of course she does look back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
From that time on, Orpheus refused the company of women. Here again, it is the homosexuality (or bisexuality) of men which is accepted, and only with very young men.
Orpheus even started the practice among the Thracian tribes of turning for love to immature males and of plucking the flower of a boy’s brief spring before he has come to his manhood. lines 83 – 85
Hyacinth and Phoebus adore each other, always together hunting, playing and relaxing. One day, they are playing what amounts to a game of Frisbee, only with a heavy discus. Phoebus throws it, and as Hyacinth runs to catch it, the discus bounces off the ground and hits him in the face, killing him. Instead of allowing Hades to take him to the underworld, Phoebus turns Hyacinth into a flower.
The gist of Pygmalion’s story is that he was so sickened by the vices of women that he eschews them, instead sculpting the perfect woman. She was so perfect that Pygmalion would caress her much as anyone would caress a living woman. Praying and making sacrifices to Venus, he asks for a woman just like his “ivory maiden.” Hearing his supplications, Venus turns the statue into Pygmalion’s dream living woman.
Myrrha‘s story is just as icky as Byblis‘ (see Book Nine). While her mother is away from home participating in the annual rites for Ceres, Myrrha confesses her love to her nurse. Nursie then sneaks Myrrha into her father’s bed, who thinks she is some other young girl. For nine nights they have sex. King Cinyras is outraged when he finds out it’s his daughter he’s been sleeping with, he tries to kill her. Myrhha runs away and, while pregnant with her son, Adonis, is turned into the myrrh tree.
Adonis is born and grows into a very beautiful man, one which Venus falls in love with by accident (because her son Cupid grazed her with one of his arrows.) As they are lounging one day, she tells the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes (not the Atalanta found in Book 8).
Atalanta is a highly pursued beauty who can outrun anyone. She is warned by an oracle to avoid men,
But you shall not escape. You will lose yourself, without losing your life. (line 366)
Suitors continued their quest, despite Atalanta’s rule that any man who does not outrun her will be killed. (Much like Red Sonja who receives incredible fighting skills, on the condition that she never sleep with a man unless he defeats her in fair combat.) One day, Hippomenes arrives on the scene and Atalanta is smitten. There follows a soliloquy in which she examines her feelings and argues with herself about actually racing Hippomenes.
In the meantime, Hippomenes has prayed to Venus for help to win the race and thus, the hand of Atalanta. Venus answers his prayers by giving him three golden apples with which to distract Atalanta. Hippomenes wins the day and takes her as his wife. But he is so filled with lust that they profane the temple of Cybele with their love-making.
Cybele is so angry she decided summarily sending the couple across the river Styx is not harsh enough punishment and turns them into lions.
At this point, Venus admonishes Adonis to stay away from lions and other animals “that won’t turn tail but bare their teeth for a fight.” (line 706)
Venus leaves Adonis, who goes hunting and finds himself cornered in a cave by a boar which impales him in the groin with its tusks. As Adonis lies dying on the floor of the cave, Venus hears his cries of pain and rushes back to him. Unable to save him, she changes Adonis into a pomegranate.
… But this new flower has only a short life: flimsy and loose on its stem, it is easy shaken and blown away by the winds which give it the name of anemone – wind-flower. (lines 736 – 738)
Ovid continues to pack quite a bit into just 37 pages.
While thinking about the events of last week, it seemed nothing of great consequence had happened. Unless you count the design of my new logo and masthead. Followed by some mundanities of behind the scene work on 7 Stillwell like installing and configuring plugins.
There was an interview for a job I didn’t get and appointments to talk with people to make sure my head’s still screwed on right. Support for my creative path coming from unexpected places.
And this from my reading of Book Ten as posted on Facebook: “Wait, wait, wait … just started Ovid’s Book 10 and the first line says Hymen is the male god of the marriage feast? Hymen is MALE?” This is one of the many reasons I keep slugging it out with Ovid.
And then this about my encounter with a young man who wanted to talk about writing:
It was both hot and muggy outside today. All I had been thinking about while standing at the counter was how much I just wanted to go home, change my clothes and sit down to eat lunch. The money handler got my total wrong and went back to fix it. My sandwich maker looked up as I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a lot of words to write.’ And then he wanted to talk about writing and what my writing was about and what I did. As I disengaged and walked to the door, my thought turned to how I hadn’t taken him seriously. This kid just wanted to talk about writing and ask questions. Whether he is serious about it or not, I regret that I didn’t take a few more seconds to listen and encourage him as I wish people had when I was that age. So much to learn.
I think I also walked away because I felt like such a fraud in a way. It’s the first time anyone outside of my tribe has asked about my writing and my tap dance was a mile a minute because I didn’t know what to say. Since I’ve finally begun to own that I am a writer, it sort of took me by surprise.
Tony Hillerman is a part of my formative years. I discovered him while living in New Mexico, probably during high school. Reading his books are sort of like coming home for me. Even though I lived along north I-25, and the books take place along west I-40, the descriptions of Navajo culture resonates deeply. I can still see the vivid colors and smell the Indian Fry Bread.
In the Navajo language, the word for mole translates to People of Darkness, those who come from below. The book hinges on the origin of the mole fetishes carried by six Navajo men, who survived an oil well explosion in the late 1940s. These men also belonged to a peyote church whose leader had a vision which warned them to stay away from the well on the day of the explosion.
People of Darkness is the introduction of Jim Chee into the world Tony Hillerman has created. Chee is faced with big decisions; FBI or Navajo Police, cop or singer and healer for his people. As he gets pulled deeper into the mystery of a stolen box filled with mementos, a hired assassin and six deaths from cancer, Chee nearly gets killed himself.
Hillerman’s mysteries are kept from being run of the mill by the intersection of white and Navajo culture. Since they’re set on Navajo land which has sketchy boundaries at best, there’s always jurisdictional issues. FBI or Navajo Police? Sheriff or BIA? Some combination of that or someone else? In Hillerman’s books, FBI almost always thinks it’s their jurisdiction.
What I’m most appreciative of are the descriptions of manners and customs. One does not drive up to someone’s home and knock on the door. One parks 30 feet away and waits for someone to come to the door and invite you in.
Navajo religion plays a big part in these books as well. Navajos seek harmony and believe that a person’s illness is caused by being out of harmony. A healer determines which ceremonies must be performed in order to bring the person back into harmony. Cancer isn’t a disease of uranium poisoning through mole fetishes, it’s being out of harmony. It’s Chee’s understanding of this concept and his training to be a singer which helps him understand how the pieces fit together.
People of Darkness is also the introduction of Mary Landon, a white teacher from Wisconsin. Hillerman has Chee and Landon do the dance of inter-racial suspicions before they settle into a friendship. She’s described as the typical white woman Chee knows so well as someone looking for a good time with him because he’s Native American. He’s described as the typical Navajo who is suspicious of anyone white. It’s fun to read how the dynamics change between them as the story progresses.
Tony Hillerman’s mysteries are not deep, most books run right around 200 – 300 pages. They’re a fun way to pass an evening, and some days that’s all anyone can want.
Page 100 finds Jim Chee working the case from his hospital bed. The box stolen from the rich couple has become more than about the box. There’s an assassin on the loose, an old oil drilling accident which becomes relevant, and multiple Navajo men who worked the rig but survived the accident now dying from cancer.
Jim finds himself the target of the assassin and decides to go look for answers, taking Mary Landon, the white woman from the first 100 pages with him. Research in the UNM library gives them leads to families who might be able to answer questions about the accident and the men’s involvement with a peyote church, whose fetish is the mole which translates to “People of Darkness” in Navajo.
Since Hillerman’s novels are set in and around the Navajo reservation, there’s rarely clear law enforcement jurisdiction. It it FBI? FBI always thinks it’s their jurisdiction. Sheriff or Navajo police? The sheriff in this story thinks it’s his jurisdiction because his brother was killed in the accident, and although it’s never been proven, thinks the white rich man whose box has gone missing has something to do with it.
About the time Hillerman describes what’s in the ceremonial pouches I began to suspect what was happening. The fetish in the pouch is a mole made out of shale from the drilling site, and all who have carried this fetish get sick of some sort of cancer.
Then there’s the obligatory wandering around the reservation in search of people and finding answers. All of Hillerman’s mysteries feature at least one of these trips. How else can he illustrate how vast and lonely this piece of land is? It’s also a chance to describe Navajo customs and manners.
Chee and Landon get stranded and must shoot their way out. He gets shot and can’t walk out so she hikes the five miles to the freeway and flags down a trucker who radios for help.
The pieces to the puzzle have begun to fall into place and it’s a matter of sharing information with both the FBI and the sheriff to solve the puzzle and round up the bad guy.
At the end, Chee makes his decision about staying or going and the reader is left wanting to know more about this young man and his role with his people.