Spider Old Woman, Part One

I can understand why a mythical wise woman who is helpful and powerful could be called Spider Old Woman. From big furry tarantulas to tiny jumping spiders who can spring eight times the length of their wee legs, I think spiders are amazing and often beautiful. I once saw a sparkling emerald-green spider, no bigger around than the little tip you press to click a ballpoint pen, sitting on a gas pump in Suffolk, Virginia. Also in the South, I’ve encountered delicate pale green spiders, even their legs the color of spring leaves. I let some rather dull-looking spiders live with me all summer in Truth or Consequences, NM, because they did such a good job with the gnats or whatever those were that used to come to the light when I was writing at night. Webs are functional for catching gnats, and they’re also works of art, especially outdoors after a rain when they’re beaded with drops of light.

As part of a get-acquainted activity in my academic division, faculty from different departments were asked to pair up and tell each other where we from, what we teach, and who we would be if we could be superheroes, and what our superpowers would be. The answers were varied, creative, and revealing. Some professors admired real humans as their superheroes. Young mothers who are also teachers and scholars wanted multi-tasking superpowers. My superhero was Spider Old Woman. My power would be, if I had one, to make people aware of the interconnectedness of all things—aware that when they touch one thread of the web of life, it truly does vibrate everything in it.

Spider Old Woman—or Spider Woman or Grandmother Spider as she’s variously known—may be familiar if you’re a fan of Southwestern mysteries, such as Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter and James D. Doss’s Grandmother Spider. She’s found in the mythology of Native tribes all over the western half of North America. In New Mexico Pueblo stories, she “creates order from chaos by drawing two intersecting lines, the first from north to south, the second from east to west. It is she who creates the four seasons and adds the four elements of weather—thunder, lightning, clouds and rainbow—to the sky.” (From Spider Woman’s Web by Susan Hazen-Hammond.) I love this view of creation as connection and pattern, and the emphasis on the sacred importance of those events in the sky.

In some stories Spider Old Woman seems to be a sort of magical helper, but she’s old and wise. She doesn’t bring what we want so much as what we need. I found the book cited above at a booth at a powwow in Northeastern North Carolina. Its subtitle is Traditional Native American Tales about Women’s Power. A Spider Woman story in it bore a startling resemblance to real events in my life, and cast a new light on them in a way that changed my life story and helped me reclaim my own power. I’ll tell those stories—both mine and the traditional story—next week.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/528968.Spider_Woman_s_Web

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/913105.Grandmother_Spider

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17349269-spider-woman-s-daughter

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A New Mexico Mystery Review: Spider Woman’s Daughter

While continuing the characters and settings from Tony Hillerman’s books, Anne Hillerman has her own style and voice as a writer. I didn’t feel as if I was reading one of her father’s books, but I felt fully at home with her mastery of the series. She has the understanding of Navajo culture that’s central to the stories, and she knows the characters well. Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn and Bernie Manuelito are familiar and fully developed, with touches ranging from Chee’s off-beat humor to Joe Leaphorn’s meticulously detailed little notebook to Chee and Bernie’s deep spirituality. Even the secondary characters like Captain Largo are immediately recognizable as the same people from the earlier part of the series.

The setting is portrayed vividly— the land, the cities, the small towns, and the people. Accurate details and human touches make the places come alive. The bone-jarring washboard roads going to Chaco Canyon have livestock wandering them. A local can’t give directions for driving in downtown Santa Fe. The groundskeeper Mark Yazzie, a minor character, stood out as delightfully real and original. The tenacious and amusingly ferocious Gloria Benally is another unforgettable supporting character. Even if I weren’t a New Mexican, I think Hillerman’s writing would make me hear the voices, feel the air, and see and smell the place, from the plants in Santa Fe gardens to the hot wind in June before the rains come.

This book kept me awake at night reading it, and I found myself thinking about it between times, wondering what would happen next. The suspense is effectively structured, but it’s depth of the relationships that make the story powerful.  Bernie’s dedication isn’t just to her job, but to people, and that dedication drives the story.

It was intriguing to see characters from Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time come back. I hadn’t read it for a long time, and think it would have been fun to re-read it before entering this story. I’m going to rediscover it after instead.

*****

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I follow a review with an author interview. My interview with Anne Hillerman will come later, paired with a review of her next book, Rock with Wings.