The recent loss of author Tony Hillerman, familiar to many New Mexicans, reminds us of the value, and the rarity, of writers who can create entire fictional, and believable, worlds within the real world.
Authors such as Hillerman are a rare breed, not to be confused with, nor to decrease the value of, gifted writers such as Jack Williamson or J.K. Rowling, who create entire worlds outside of the real world.
Technically, of course, we call it regional fiction. On a practical level, we are talking about Hillerman, about William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, about Rudoldo Anaya’s northern New Mexico. We are talking about the ability to take a real place and people it with fictional characters who convince you of their existence.
I saw anew the value of this when, while teaching at Three Way Junior High, I took my boys and girls reading classes on a field trip that passed through Fort Sumner (the boys class had been reading histories of Billy the Kid) and ended up with a picnic and swim at Santa Rosa and The Blue Hole. (The real life setting fictionalized in Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima.”
It could be the subject of a PhD dissertation, to discern how much of Ultima was fiction and how much was actually Anaya’s childhood. The point is, this is a rare and powerful gift, one which, in this age of word deluge, is the more to be valued.
My father, a retired engineer, rode through areas of the vast Navajo Reservation on his first trip to New Mexico. What was in the back of the mind of this retired scientist, a Tony Hillerman reader since at least the 1980s?
During the time of my cancer surgery, while recovering in the hospital in western Pennsylvania, I read “The Turquoise Mask” by Phyllis Whitney. Aside from the obvious effect of making me homesick for Santa Fe (which isn’t hard to do), the realism of Whitney’s use of geography, based in a two-year residence while she researched her novel, made the entire mystery seem believable.
Whitney proves that you don’t have to be a native, as Faulkner was to his rural Southeast, to write good regional fiction. You simply have to be willing to do the hard work, the on site research, necessary to depict it realistically.
I remember my wife’s experience when, on our first trip together back to Pennsylvania. We flew into Baltimore and drove 7 1/2 hours home so that she could see some slice of West Virginia.
Janice had never been east of the Mississippi, except Disney World, which doesn’t count. She had, however, read a novel set in West Virginia, and driving through that state gave her a context. For the geographically challenged, if you are in Baltimore and want to go to Pittsburgh, one way to do so involves driving through a considerable slice of West Virginia.
Perhaps it is because we, as humans, are descended from hunter/gatherers in whom the concept of landmarks is deeply and genetically embedded. At any rate, the world of regional fiction has lost a true giant.
Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and a college instructor. He can be contacted at: email@example.com