Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir, by Tony Hillerman *****

seldomdisappointedHillerman was one of my favorite writers. I am so darned sorry he is gone. I read this partly because I enjoy autobiographies and memoirs (especially at bedtime; they are so linear that I can keep track while I am getting sleepy) and also because I had read all of his mysteries and had none of his novels left to read. But this one is an award-winner in its own right, which I did not know before diving in. It’s a real treasure.

Hillerman grew up in Oklahoma, and he grew up around American Indian kids. He learned a fair amount that way, but once he began writing about them, he felt he had not served them well enough, and so he wrote another novel with the same focus in an effort at getting it right. And so it went. He is the only Caucasian writer ever to have been named a Friend of the Navajo by that tribe, though I found this information on one of the fly-leafs of a novel, not in this book; he is humble and unassuming.

The name of the novel came from a saying of his mother’s: “Blessed are they that expect little, for they shall be seldom disappointed.”

Hillerman talks a lot about his experiences in World War II, and at first, one may think it is just an old man telling war stories. He tells his better than most, of course. But there’s more to it than that. He was badly injured in this war, and he considers himself fortunate to have been an artilleryman, since he says that riflemen got killed fastest; I always had heard that artillerymen got dead quicker than anyone, but that’s not what he says, and who knows whether this is just modesty or whether World War II was different from the general rule (or whether what I read that military historians recorded was wrong information, for that matter).

But Hillerman’s bent isn’t actually military history, it’s his own story, and this was a major part of it. He has a way of coming full circle with various points in his tale. Things that are mentioned at the beginning of the book show up at the end, changed yet the same. (Check the detail with which he describes a game of marbles during his childhood; it’s going to show up again.)

There are two things I really like besides the fact that the guy was really great with the written word. One is his working class trajectory. This comes out in his novels (and instead of mansions with tennis courts, his heroes live in thin-walled aluminum trailers or hogans with no running water), and his dedication to his wife. I have never seen a man wax so effusively over a woman he’s been married to for decades; it says a lot about his character.

I’ve read a lot of this genre, but this is one of the finest of its example I’ve read to date. Highly recommended (and never disappointed).

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