The book-a-week challenge continues with Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.
There are some books that hover around the edges of one’s good intentions — well-meaning notions of finally starting or finishing a novel, even if decades account for the interim.
Family trips at a young age introduced me to the American Southwest. After growing up in Ohio my family moved to Kansas. It took years for me to appreciate the prairie, the Plains, and the West, unexplored by me until a much later age. Interest in novels set in such places eventually took hold.
I think readers discover some authors because of a shared link. For me, I learned of and read about Willa Cather partly because of her life on the Nebraska prairie, but also her life in journalism before turning her full attention to writing. One book that intrigued me was Death Comes for the Archbishop; I was curious how Cather could fictionalize a bit of history lost in the sweep of the American experience.
In the novel, one consequence of the Mexican-American War was the newly acquired territories became reorganized, and the responsibility of ministering to the Catholic faithful fell to the Church in the United States. Diocesan maps were drawn reflecting the change. One such change was the creation of a vicarage of Santa Fe in the New Mexico territory. Death Comes for the Archbishop is the story of a missionary priest who takes on the burden of traveling to Santa Fe to guide the faithful in the deserts and mountains throughout New Mexico and Arizona.
In this engrossing tale, our archbishop, Father Latour is joined by his fellow Frenchman, priest, and friend, Joseph Vaillant as they seek to fulfill their duty as missionaries in an inhospitable land. Latour’s is a questioning heart, wondering if he is up to the task of saving souls and building a church in a vast country only biblical heroes might recognize. His story unfolds bit by bit, and what a magnificent story it is.
Cather’s narrative is at once ecclesiastical, historical, anthropological. It is an amazing feat of describing a world that was, and no longer exists. Published in 1927, Death Comes to the Archbishop is a look back to a time that would have ended when Cather herself was a small pioneer child on the Nebraska Plains. In the present day, it is as if the novel has become more than fiction. It is a time capsule and a treasure.
A reader can embrace this novel for no other reason than to learn of the Hopi, the Navajo, the Mexicans who scrape out a living in such a harsh land. Cather’s characters are memorable: Mexican priests who refuse to acknowledge Latour’s authority as bishop, devout families respectful of churchmen, and proud indigenous peoples who show Latour and Vaillant their customs and ways and exhibit a grace and generosity the men come to respect.
Cather’s literary gifts include a mastery of pace and tempo, regular as a heartbeat, and a use of a language so full in description one can almost feel the heat, the rain, the dust, the wind, and witness the Old World clashing with the New. But key is the story of how change rules the novel. It runs like a current through time. From the remnants of the conquistadors to the American presence, the soldiers, traders, fortune seekers, and outlaws, to the natives who see their way of life diminish generation after generation. There is change, but there also is what remains: devout people who express their gratitude in ways that make everyday life bearable, existing day to day, enduring hardships, and exulting in small gifts life, and faith, occasionally deliver.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (Annotated Edition) by Willa Cather.
5 stars out of 5
Available in all formats everywhere.
Check in every week for Book Review Wednesday. I’m reading and reviewing a book a week throughout 2018. Join me. Authors, if you have a book you would like reviewed, send me an email at email@example.com.
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