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Tucson Weekly A Spoonful of Sugar

Though rough around the edges, Ron Querry's "Bad Medicine" is full of engaging information about the Hopi and Navajo.

By Christine Wald-Hopkins

APRIL 20, 1998: 

Bad Medicine, by Ron Querry (Bantam Books). Cloth, $23.95.

A RON QUERRY character tells a reservation joke for a little comic relief before a blonde archeologist drowns in her own fluids: The statisticians, he says, have a done a census. They determined that the typical Navajo family consists of six-and-a-half members: Father, mother, three and one-half children, and the resident anthropologist who's there studying them.

Substitute "archeologist" for "anthropologist," and you don't feel so bad about the blonde buying it. Substitute "writer" for either, and you have a picture of what the rezes might look like these days.

Novelist Tony Hillerman was among the first to open up the Four Corners region, ushering in an onslaught of some of the best and worst popular fiction in the intervening years. Bad Medicine is indeed another Southwestern novel, but it comes with a sort of BIA seal of approval: Querry is part Choctaw, and he has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. He brings culture to the outfit.

Bad Medicine is a low-impact science mystery novel about the hantavirus outbreak on the Navajo Reservation in the summer of 1993. It's low-impact because we already know what the scientists are trying to discover: that what's killing people is carried in rodent droppings. It's still a mystery because Querry mixes a little native medicine and the supernatural in with human predators and Western medical practice.

As the book opens, Dr. Push (short for Pushmataha) Foster, fresh from residency and willing to pay back the government for med school costs, arrives in the Four Corners area to serve a two-year Public Health Service stint. He's just in time to witness the galloping respiratory failure of a young Navajo mother. A removed-from-his-roots, mixed-blood Choctaw, Push had tried to prepare himself for this tribe--memorizing phrases in Navajo, learning good manners--but he's not ready for the culture shock unleashed by the death of this girl, and the resulting nightmare it evokes. He hooks up with Anglo-raised Navajo doctor Sonny Brokeshoulder, an old college friend who heads the Health and Human Services Agency for the Navajo nation, and they set out to hunt down the disease.

Meanwhile, a Navajo medicine man named Silas Slowtalker and the Hopi Elder Clifford Lomaquaptewa are also at work. They attribute the epidemic to a skewing of the balance between man and nature. Slowtalker's sinister spin on this theory, combined with a very real profit-seeking Anglo intent on stealing a sacred artifact from the Hopi dead, and it becomes apparent that there's more than one threat at large on the reservation. And I haven't even mentioned the presence of Warrior Woman, who 200 years ago sacrificed her own life in a leap off a cliff with a Spanish soldier in tow.

Besides the exotic attraction of the regional geography (the breathtaking vistas of the Four Corners' towering red monoliths, wide open skies, and adobe mesa villages inhabited for hundreds of years against the backdrop of the San Francisco Peaks, or Nuvatukyaovi, 80 miles southwest), it also offers two distinct, intact tribal cultures. A significant strength of Bad Medicine is its cultural component: It's informative without invading privacy or revealing secrets.

Querry provides a detailed map of the reservations, calling villages, canyons and caves by their English and native names. The notion of Flagstaff as a "border town" is appealing, nestled in the shadows of the Nuvatukyaovi. The Ft. Wingate Army Depot is actually called Shash bitoo, or "Massacre Cave," where Spanish soldiers murdered Navajo women, children and old men in 1805. Sounds better as Adah Aho doo nili, or "Two Fell Off."

Querry introduces readers to other cultural practices and insights that might be unfamiliar, such as the difference between a "hand-trembler" and a "singer" in traditional Navajo medicine: the former diagnoses; the latter cures.

The Navajo are concerned with the metaphysical causes of disease: loss of the soul, spiritual possession, a foreign object in the body, breaking taboos, and most pernicious of all, witchery. And here's a good reason not to kick your dog: Tradition has it that your best dog should be buried with you. There's a big chasm you need to cross over on your journey after death. A log stretches across it, but it's unsteady. If you've been good to your dog, he'll repay you by steadying the log with his teeth.

Personally, I can't get enough of this stuff, but this isn't exactly a perfect novel. Its shifting point of view makes the reader more intimate with characters' perspectives than is either desirable or necessary, and it erodes the legitimacy of the narrator. And while principal characters are sympathetic and memorable, third-tier characters border on cartoonish: to wit, the New Agers in their decorated vans, with dirty children and vacant stares; and the dozen hanta-fighting feds who converge on one hapless Navajo trailer in space suits. (Querry has one bemused old Navajo pull up a folding chair to watch, and comment, "Ehh Teh," the pronunciation for "E.T."). And he tests the limits of credibility with a foray into the native supernatural.

But let there be no mistake: Bad Medicine is entertaining reading. It handily passed the rigorous jury duty test: It's engaging enough to hold one's attention in the gum-snapping, cell-phone yapping jury pool. It'll be a good summer read, too. Just don't get too excited about the Four Corners. Best to enjoy it from a distance. Preferably through books. Those who arrived before the novelists don't need any other bilagaana types ruining their native experience. Anyway, you know what they're saying about El Niño and the hantavirus....

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