Closing the Circle

Over the years I’ve learned to categorize my readers.  There are DTRs—dead tree readers; ARs—audio readers; IORs—in order readers.  Today I’m adding another category to the list—GRs—geographical readers, some of whom only read the Seattle books and some who only read the Arizona books.  The most extreme version of a GR   came to light when I was at a long gone bookstore in Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill neighborhood.  I was signing my first hardback book, Hour of the Hunter, which happened to be my first non-Beaumont book as well.

A woman came up to the table and said, “Is this book set in Seattle?”

“No,” I told her.  “It’s set on and around an Indian reservation near Tucson, Arizona.”

“Well,” she told me archly.  “I only read books set on Queen Anne Hill.”

She did not purchase a book, and I remember thinking as she walked away, “She must have at least three or four books in her library.”

I’ve met lots of geographical readers since, but none that have been quite as adamant about it as she was.  And I get it.  It’s fun to read about familiar places.  It can be jarring at times as well.  A corrections officer used to drive “the chain,” a network of vans used to transport prisoners from one facility to another.  His trips often took him through southern Arizona and he admitted that, on occasion, while traveling from places in Texas or New Mexico, he’d stop off on High Lonesome Road to let his passengers have a pee break.  Once he started reading the Joanna Brady books and learned about her living on High Lonesome, he quit longer stopping there.

And then there was a woman named Bonnie Abney who picked up what she expected to be another Beaumont book only to find herself in Bisbee, Arizona, complete with a scene at Evergreen Cemetery where Bonnie’s beloved fiancé, Doug Davis, had been buried decades earlier after dying in a firefight in Vietnam.  That chance encounter between author and reader led to a now decades-old friendship between Bonnie and me.  For full details on that story, maybe it’s time to read or reread Beaumont # 21, Second Watch.

So, yes, geographical reading can be fun when you encounter one of those “ah ha” moments where you find yourself saying, “I’ve been there.”  Truth be known, being a geographical writer can be fun, too.  I love putting those little in-crowd touches into my stories, the small details that may only resonate with a few of my readers.  That’s as true for my Washington-based books as it is for my Arizona-based ones.

When I’m being introduced in public, the hosts often recount that I’m the author of three different series—the Beaumonts, the Bradys, and the Ali Reynolds books, as well as “five inter-related thrillers”—the books about the Walker Family.  To my way of thinking the Walker books are every bit as much of a series as the others, but why quibble?  Besides, I understand why publicists state it that way.  Life on an Indian reservation in Arizona is far removed from life in New York City, which is why both Tony Hillerman and I were told by early editors, “What you really need to do is leave out all that Indian stuff.”  But it turns out, in Hour of the Hunter, the Indian “stuff” is the whole point.

When I went to what was then the Papago Reservation as a school librarian in 1968, I had zero knowledge about the people I was about to meet.  There’s a low-lying pass in the highway as you drive west into Sells, and every time I crossed that pass on the way to school, I had the sense of being an outsider—a sense that came from me, because the Desert People welcomed me and over time became my friends.  The women I met there, the ones I counted as friends, lived with all kinds of adversities—poverty, physically abusive or cheating husbands, alcoholism, diabetes—and yet they taught me so much.  Rita Pablo, a basket weaver who worked in the cafeteria at Topawa Elementary, told me about being exiled to a job in California after graduating from boarding school. Her story became Rita Antone’s story in Hour of the Hunter.  Loretta Ramon’s sense of humor still makes me smile.  In fact I quoted one of her stories verbatim in Sins of the Fathers, and she was the one who taught me that every work of art—in beadwork, basketry, or pottery—must have a mistake in it, because only the Great Spirit is perfect.  Melissa Juan, my first library aide, got beaten up by her husband when she decided to try taking a nighttime college course at the University of Arizona, but she went anyway. When I drove her into town to register for the class, she was still sporting two black eyes, but she registered, took the class, passed, and went on to become one of a class focused on training Indian teachers that was offered offered by Arizona State University.

I came to love the people, the place, and the lore.  I came to treasure the Tohono O’odham legends I learned as a storyteller on the reservation, telling 26 stories a week in K-6 classrooms.  I often wore a bright green dress on storytelling day, and since I’m very tall and the kids were very short, and since I came for no other purpose than to provide fun, the kids called me the Jolly Green Giant.  One of the storytelling precepts I learned from the Desert People is that the story must end where it begins.  In other words, lives and stories both have to come full circle.

So I wrote the Walker Family books as a way of introducing people who would never visit the reservation to the people and traditions I had met there.  I wanted to make that life come alive for others the same way it had for me.

The summer after our daughter was born, my husband and I were invited to the wine dance.  The in question wine is made by fermenting the fruit from the saguaro, producing a beverage with the look and consistency of tomato juice but with the kick of tequila.  Guests sit around a bonfire in a circle (Yes, it’s summer, but it’s cold in the desert overnight and fires are necessary!)  The cup is passed from hand to hand, with each person in the circle taking a sip.  Over time enough wine goes down the hatch until people are sick—enough so that the wine ends up being barfed back to the earth, thus completing the circle.  Our tender Anglo sensibilities may regard this process as gross, but among the Desert People  it’s a sacred tradition, not unlike Christians sharing communion.

On the night of the dance, someone had to stay home with the baby. Guess who was elected?  As for my husband?  He went and was absolutely in his element, and from then on—until the day he died a decade later—he rubbed my nose in the fact that he had sat in the circle and I hadn’t.

Fast forward forty years. I had written four of the five Walker book by the, and Queen of the Night had just been published. That’s when the man in charge of the tribal museum in Topawa asked if I’d come to there to do a signing.  I agreed, but but I was very nervous about it.  I felt as though I had treated the people and their beliefs and traditions with respect, but I had no idea how they felt about my work.

When Bill and I arrived at the event on a blustery March Saturday morning, I was astonished to find all kinds of out of state licenses in the parking lot—vehicles from Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Idaho.  My Milghan (Anglo) snowbird readers had seen the event posted on the website and had driven a hundred and fifty miles round trip to see what it was all about.

The event started with the emcee introducing the medicine man who did an invocation in Tohono O’odham.  I know part of the time he was talking about me because occasionally he used the word “librarian.”  Evidently there is no Tohono O’odham word for librarian except … well … librarian.  When the invocation ended, the emcee introduced a group of young people who would be performing a circle dance.  “Please don’t take any photos during the circle dance,” the emcee cautioned, “but when we open it for social dancing, you’re welcome to join the circle.”

The whole time they were dancing, my mind kept going back to that wine dance I missed back in 1973.  “You know, Judy,” I told myself, “you’ve been griping about this for forty years.  Isn’t it time you put your money where your mouth is?”  So when the emcee opened it for social dancing, I stood up to go down and join the circle, and do you know what happened?  The Desert People who were there gave me a standing ovation.  As I stepped into the circle and joined hands with the people next to me, my heart was overflowing with joy, and it seemed as though nothing better could possibly happen.  But then a miracle occurred because something better DID happen.  Some of the Milghan folks from those out of state cars came down and danced in the circle with me.  It turns out II really HAD made the Tohono O’odham come alive for them.

That circle dance was then and still remains the high point of my literary career.  I can’t think about it without getting goosebumps on my legs.

So why am I mentioning that story this morning?  I just heard that for July only, Amazon is offering a Kindle edition of Hour of the Hunter for $2.99, and it occurred to me that maybe that price tag might appeal to a few of my GRs (see above)—the some other readers who limit themselves to one series or another without ever looking at the Walkers.  I’m hoping to them them into giving those stories a try.  In Hour of the Hunter, they’ll discover a remarkable piece of storytelling, one where the stories and legends of the Desert People—the ones I learned as a storyteller—are woven into the fabric of the book.

Caution, spoiler alert.  It’s no accident that the crazed killer in Hour of the Hunter turns out to be a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.  Yup, it’s a tribute, if you will, to the guy who wouldn’t let me into his Creative Writing class back in 1964 because I was a girl.  Take that, you jerk!

Which reminds me of something my mother used to say:  He who laughs last laughs best.  That Creative Writing professor died before my first book was published in 1985.  I’m most certainly laughing, and the circle is officially closed.