"Stargazer" By Anne Hillerman

 Review by Joan Leotta

Anne Hillerman has continued the characters in her father Tony Hillerman’s beloved series featuring Navajo detectives. Anne Hillerman shifts the focus slightly from the two male detectives Chee and Leaphorn to the young, clever, feisty Bernadette Manuelito aka Mrs. Chee. Stargazer takes us into another area of Navajo history with the revelation of the way that the stars are named and patterned by the Dine and the relationship of those stars to the Greco-Roman names for the constellations that I am familiar with. 

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Unfortunately, the beauty of the night sky is not always peaceful and murder brings Bernie, Jim, and now-retired Leaphorn into the picture. Their work on the murder, along with the Federal officers whose jurisdiction covers the murder, brings up ties to an old case held by Leaphorn. Hillerman manages to weave into the story the plight of missing indigenous woman as well.

The strength of this series is the way in which the personal relationships continue. Second in the strength is often the way in which Hillerman both father and daughter deal with contemporary needs/issues on the Navajo reservation. Stargazer shines a light on the problem of disappearing indigenous women and the sadness of caring for a family member with dementia, two large problems in our society today. Most striking in this entry, and the one before it, are Bernie’s relationships with her mother and sister. In this book, we watch her mother slide into dementia. I have experienced these same issues with my own mother and so was not surprised when at the end of the novel we learn that Hillerman is witnessing the progression of dementia in someone she loves.  

The one weak point, for me, is how Chee is handled in this tale. He is “off to the side” as a supervisor in most of the book. The threads of his supervisor storyline that do appear, contain several references to resurrecting his dream of becoming a Navajo holy man. However, I was not satisfied with the information given on his inner process. We see some of his thoughts and are given lots of insights into the thought processes of Bernie and even Leaphorn, but I felt shorted on the thinking process of Jim Chee in this book except in the area of his continued love for and loyalty to Bernie.

Hillerman seems to enjoy bringing back details of her father’s books into cases Bernie and Jim are called to solve, partly as an excuse to involve Leaphorn. This story refers back to a 1978 book of Hillerman’s called Listening Woman. Although she provides enough information about that old case to both relate it to this one and to allow for the opening to the cause of disappearing women on the reservation, I found the more than forty year gap a bit hard to grasp. I think, given Leaphorn’s interest in staying active, Bernie and Jim could still ask for help from Leaphorn on new cases with no connection to past ones.

The thread of Chee’s discontent as a supervisor and, as I described above, was not as developed as I would have wished. Although I do not need endings to be tied in a bow, I felt this one ended on a very unsettled note. I look forward to finding out more about Chee’s ideas and directions in future installments of the series and to further insights into Bernie. However, if you are a fan of the series, you cannot miss this installment because it lays out, more fully, for Bernie, but also (although less so) issues that will need to be dealt with in the future, in particular, career and personal directions for Bernie and Jim Chee.   

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Joan Leotta writes, tells stories on stage and when not walking the beach, can most often be found curled up with a good book, usually, a mystery.

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