A Journalist's Archive

The Great Taos Bank Robbery
Tony Hillerman
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          "The Great Taos Bank Robbery and other true stories of the Southwest," by Tony Hillerman is 173 pages of pure enjoyment. Many of the essays are hilarious, others are educational, but each reveals the essence of New Mexico through the eyes of one of America's greatest story tellers.

          Hillerman is best known for his mystery series featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, two Navajo policemen, who solve crimes throughout the Four Corners area. Hillerman designs each plot  around one or more aspects of Indian culture, then unleashes his fictional characters to teach readers Indian traditions or express his own emotional attachment to the desert Southwest.

          However Hillerman didn't start his career as a fiction writer. He spent 14 years covering local beats for newspapers throughout the Southwest. That experience led to this collection of essays which covers every facet of New Mexico's history, including ancient artifacts, Spanish land grants, and a clever vote-splitting Mexican-American politician.

          "The Great Taos Bank Robbery" takes place on November 12, 1957. The story begins with a call from Mrs. Ruth Fish, manager of the Taos Chamber of Commerce, to the city editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Fish informs the editor that the Taos Bank is going to be robbed that morning, and promises to call him back with a detailed eye-witness account of the event.

          Hillerman tells this story without letting on he was the city editor from 1954 to 1963. Naturally, he wanted to know how Mrs. Fish could predict a bank robbery, but he never doubted the truthfulness of her report, because anything happening in the small town of Taos is always noticed. So Taos neighbors gathered to watch a man dressed in drag, hiding a gun under his purse, attempt to rob the bank. I won't spoil the story for readers by revealing the ending, but tales like this can only take place in the wide-open spaces of the Southwest, where people wile away the hours counting buzzards in the sky, or observing bizarre behavior.

          Next we meet Alex Attcitty, a Navajo Indian, who retells the saga of his nation in "The Very Heart of Our Country." "You know," Attcitty said, "they gave us our choice. A bunch of rich Arkansas River bottomland over in Oklahoma or this." Attcitty then opens his arms as if to embrace the landscape including "erosion, dead brush, cows, and an infinity of gaudy sunset sky in the gesture." Then he tells Hillerman, "When you understand why we picked this rock pile instead of that thousand-dollar-an-acre cotton land, then you understand Navajos."

          Hillerman understands. His last paragraph in the essay entitled "The Mountain on the guardrail at Exit 164B," is simple prose strung together to express the deep emotion he feels for "pre-industrialized" New Mexico.

"You escape each afternoon from the world of Exit 164B, depleted by the day. If you look across the guardrail it is there, reminding you of a different world, of silence, and the smell of fir, and the possibility of wild turkey. My map tells me the Turquoise Mountain is 62.7 miles from this noisy intersection. In another sense the distance is infinite."

          "We all fall down" is a more serious essay which explains the history of the Black Death in the Southwest. Hillerman writes, "Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance it rode as one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse;" today it steals the lives of unsuspecting young men and women. He follows biologists as they search site after site in Northern New Mexico, looking for dead animal carcasses loaded with plague bacilli. Locals rushed to nearby hospitals have the greatest chance of survival, Hillerman explains, but tourists, whose symptoms appear only after returning home, have little chance of surviving because few physicians outside the Southwest ever encounter the plague.

          "Las Trampas" describes the history of an impoverished high-country settlement, dominated by the church of San José de Gracia. The church stands as a testimonial to the Spanish influence in the region, but "Quijote in Rio Arriba County" shows what happened to grazing land collectively owned under Spanish Land Grants when the U.S. Forest Service began its "range-improving policies."

          If you already read Hillerman's mysteries, you will recognize Shorty Miller's filling station near the White Sands Missile Range in the essay, "Keeping Secrets from the Russians." In fact, "The Great Taos Bank Robbery," shows Hillerman borrowed many characters and themes directly from his experience as a journalist to create his fictional series. But whether he is writing fact or fiction, Hillerman's knowledge and love for his corner of the earth is apparent.

          Take a copy of "The Great Taos Bank Robbery" on your next trip. It's a fast, enjoyable read. No matter where your travels take you, Hillerman is sure to transport you to the heart of the Southwest.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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