by Anne Hillerman (2022)
Tony Hillerman was a beloved author of numerous popular books about the American Southwest, featuring the Navajos in particular. His fans, of whom I am one (full disclosure here), were deeply saddened to lose his rare voice about this place and group of people. Classified as mysteries, they were good stories without the cultural references. The Navajo police officer characters of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn provided a platform for Hillerman to gently educate the reading public about the fascinating Navajo culture, history, and traditions.
While we can always re-read Tony’s wonderful books, the debut of his daughter Anne’s taking up the pen to continue the series was a welcome one. She has spent her life with these characters, too, and knows them well. Her focus has been a bit different: she has written more about the female officer, Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, who at this point has married Jim Chee.
While some readers may not appreciate the inclusion of a feminine point of view, readers are able to see a more complete view of Navajo culture. We can see the differences between how men and women doing the same job are treated, how they treat tribal members differently, and how expectations of the different roles affect how they do their jobs. (It’s no surprise that women have more responsibilities toward their extended family.)
In The Sacred Bridge, Hillerman has separated Chee and Bernie to make this very point, whether by design or for plot reasons. Chee has extended their joint vacation to explore an area that may have deep significance to Navajo culture.
In 1963, Lake Powell was created over strong protests that it would damage or destroy ancient sites sacred to the Navajos. If they were not destroyed, they were at least under water and unable to be reached. In recent years, the water level in Lake Powell had dropped enough so that these sites were possibly becoming visible and able to be explored. Since Chee and Bernie had vacationed not far from the area, Leaphorn asked Chee if he would check into the rumors.
Upon arrival, Chee discovers a drowned man in the lake. When it’s found that the man was murdered, he agrees to stay for a short while to help investigate. He also takes the opportunity to meet some of the area’s elderly experts who have studied these sites for decades. One family in particular proves not to be as it presents itself to the world.
Meanwhile, Bernie has returned to her regular police duties in Shiprock. On her way to work, she stops to assist an obviously extremely distraught Chinese man and witnesses his brutal murder. They find that a Chinese company has taken advantage of the huge open spaces New Mexico offers, more lax oversight, and a somewhat naïve workforce to provide some of the cheap labor. The company grows various strains of cannabis ostensibly for the purpose of doing medical research for a product to ameliorate or control epilepsy. As it happens, this is a cover for other less humanitarian activities in which they are involved.
Soon other issues arise that cause suspicion and concern to law enforcement: a prominent Navajo disappears; someone’s dogs are poisoned; and other irregularities associated with the company keep arising. Bernie, offended to her core by the murder she witnessed and other violations of the Navajo way, volunteers to go into the company undercover as a worker. Her determination and ingenuity save her, but it is a harrowing experience. Not only is her life threatened, but also her beloved family is endangered as a result of her actions.
We leave Chee and Bernie each at a crossroads in their lives. Chee enjoys investigating and is good at it but seeks a more spiritual path by considering resuming his “hatalii” training. Bernie also enjoys the challenge of investigating but is contemplating testing for a detective position with the police, perhaps to do undercover work.
Both seek to defend and preserve Navajo ways and beliefs, but in different–and valid–ways. Crimes such as murder, as well as the negative human emotions (envy, jealousy, greed, etc.) are destructive to the Navajo way of life. Above all, Chee and Bernie want to use their lives in ways that help preserve and enhance the Navajo way…but can these ways be mutually compatible in a strong and loving marriage?
Hillerman’s next volume in the series should prove very interesting indeed if she explores this thread.
This book will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.