Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather
Published Date: June 16, 1990
Genre: Historical Fiction; Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Death Comes For The Archbishop shares a limitless, craggy beauty with the New Mexico landscape of desert, mountain, and canyon in which its central action takes place, and its evocations of that landscape suggest why Willa Cather is acknowledged without question as the most poetically exact chronicler of the American frontier. Told with a directness that overlays its profound artistry, this story of the nineteenth century missionary priest Father Latour and his work of faith in the wilderness shines from within by virtue of its clear devotion to the human idea.
My Thoughts: Many years ago I read My Antonia and O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I don't remember much beyond the premise of the stories and some of the characters. Most of the details of the books evade me. What I've never forgotten is Willa Cather's beautiful writing. She writes in a simple, subtle way without a lot of flowery language and heavily worded sentences but creates a visually stunning image of the land that is so much a part of her books. I remember feeling as if I 'd been transported to Nebraska and the land of pioneers. I recall being able to see clearly the vistas Cather described. I've always wanted to read more of Willa Cather's work and experience more of her writing. When Molly one of the contributors to Quirky Girls Read blog announced she was hosting The Classics Bribe for the summer I picked up a copy of Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather.
Death Comes For The Archbishop is set in New Mexico in the mid-1800s. The United States recently acquired the territory of New Mexico. Although the area is predominantly Catholic, the faith of the people living here has been neglected for many years: the old mission churches are in ruins and the few priests there are to guide this vast area lack guidance and discipline. Bishop Jean Marie Latour, recently consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and his friend and fellow priest, Father Joseph Vaillant are French Jesuit missionaries who are appointed to Sante Fe to establish and lead the diocese. As the story opens, they are traveling from Sandusky, Ohio to Sante Fe, New Mexico. an arduous, lengthy journey.
The trip takes an entire year because there is no direct route from Ohio to Santa Fe. In fact, it was difficult for Father Latour to find anyone who could tell him how to get to New Mexico. He and Father Vaillant, amidst a host of misadventures, travel down the river to New Orleans, then go by boat to Galveston, Texas; across Texas to San Antonio and, finally, along the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Little do the priests know it, but this long, treacherous journey will prove to be a good test for their time in New Mexico. Not everyone is looking forward to Father Latour's arrival and he and Father Vaillant will encounter resistance to their attempts to bring discipline and order to the practice of the catholic religion, much of it from priests who have the loyalty of the people they guide.
I didn't know the storyline of Death Comes For The Archbishop before I sat down with the book. When I realized it's about a Bishop and a priest trying to establish, discipline and strengthen the catholic religion in the newly acquired land of New Mexico I seriously questioned whether or not I really wanted to read this book. I remembered the wonderful comments I'd heard about it over the years and why I'd wanted to read more books by Willa Cather, opened the book and began to read. I read Chapter One: The Cruciform Tree of Book One: The Vicar Apostolic and I was hooked. Cather describes the land Father Latour sees in front of him one of the first times he's traveling in New Mexico and I remembered what I loved about Cather's writing. The passages read as if she's in New Mexico, looking around and telling us what she sees: the colors, the shapes, the textures of the ground, the rocks, the plants bring the landscape to life. I felt transported to New Mexico. I was able to picture and understand what Father Latour sees all around him the first time he sees New Mexico. Despite the hardship of the journey, Father Latour is invigorated by the vivid landscape and sees in it the courage and resilience as well as the pain and suffering of the people who live on this land. He knows the heart of the faith is in this strange and foreign land, vastly different from the Ohio land he's used to.
Cather's considerable talent doesn't lie in landscape descriptions alone. Father Latour and Father Valliant may be French Jesuit missionary priests and therefore difficult to identify with but they are also human. Over the course of the book, as I followed the travels of the priests, read about the work they were doing and experienced their interaction with the Native Americans and the many other people they encountered, Father Latour and Father Valliant became very real, I felt like I knew and understood them. Father Latour, the main character in the book, is intelligent, quiet, reserved and very kind. He's not an outgoing person and spends much of his time contemplating what he sees and hears. Sadly, he is a very lonely man. He greatly respects the Native Americans and their practices and has a good repore with them. His Vicar, Father Valliant, a wonderful priest and somewhat the opposite of Father Latour in many ways, is humble, extremely passionate and bery personable. He's known for being impulsive and is always anxious to be busy and to be with people. Father Vaillant has a knack for talking to people of all kinds and can make almost anyone comfortable and trusting of him.
Death Comes For The Archbishop is really a series of vignettes in which Cather relays the experiences of Father Latour and Father Valliant as they work to establish and discipline the catholic faith in this vast territory. They encounter much resistance from Spanish-Mexican priests who have been there for a long time, able to do as they please with little guidance or discipline in this land long forgotten and ignored by Rome. I found it fascinating to read about priests such as Father Gallegos in Albuquerque who was a hedonistic glutton and a gambler and Father Martinez in Taos who was a promiscuous libertine. Both these priests and some others lived lives rampant with avarice and greed, both having many mistresses and too much money and tangible luxuries They fervently resist the discipline and order Father Latour expects of them and openly mock him. In Cather's skilled hand these portrayals ring with authenticity especially when she describes the varied, vastly different approaches Father Latour and Father Valliant suggest to deal with this sacrilege. These incidents underline the variety of problems and occurrences the priests encounter daily in this foreign place. It's a wonder they have any time to say Mass, meditate and pray
I really enjoyed the sections about Father Latour and the Native Americans in which I realized just how important the land is and was treated to more of Cather's picturesque imagery.. Cather writes with absorbing detail about the rituals and rites practiced by the Native Americans. Father Latour discovers that some of their superstitions and beliefs have been intertwined with their faith but he understands the futility of trying to impose his religion on their centuries old culture. There's what feels almost like reverence in the passages portraying the culture and lives of the Native Americans. They live and work with a quiet certainty and focus. I sympathized with the Native Americans as they are forced to contend with white men moving onto the land, imposing their way of life, destroying much of its raw beauty. Father Latour shows a great respect and understanding for Native Americans and the place of nature in their culture. This, in turn, garners him their respect and honor. Unlike the white man, Native Americans respect the land and work with it as it is presented to them, leaving it as they found it. They don't tear it down, break it apart or change it like the white man does. In the Hopi villages built upon rock mesas, Father Latour notices the villages look so much like the rocks upon which they sit that from a distance they cannot be seen. The Native Americans dislike novelty and change, believing that respect for the land will keep them safe, cared for and protected.
Death Comes For The Archbishop was so much more than I ever expected. Primarily it's the story of Father Jean Marie Latour's years in New Mexico establishing and running the Catholic diocese in Santa Fe with his Vicar and friend Father Joseph Valliant. In it's own way, this, too, is a pioneer story not unlike My Antonia and O Pioneers! but with priests bringing a disciplined and ordered religion to the people. The story is set in a beautiful land whose terrain requires a strong and passionate faith to survive and thrive in it. Death Comes For The Archbishop is also a story of this land and the many different people and cultures who live on and from the land and the priests who arrived one day to help and to improve the lives of the people. This is a beautifully written, compelling story that deserves to be read slowly and savored. I highly recommend it.
Beautiful review -- I loved your breakdown of the story, the writing, the characters -- you make me want to pick this up immediately. (And I might -- Cather is so late summer in feel, to me at least.)ReplyDelete
I have never read Cather, but think that I have a few of her books on my shelf. It sounds like you greatly enjoyed this one, and that perhaps I should seek this one out and make it my first. I agree with Audra that this was an exceptionally lovely review, and has make me anxious about trying a book from Cather!ReplyDelete
I've never actually completed one of her books. They are a bit too slow for me, or were (back in the day). They might be more my pace now.ReplyDelete
I feel very under read since I've never read Cather but, to be honest, I'm somewhat intimidated. You've made this sound so good, I think I may have to give it a try.ReplyDelete
You are so lucky to have read this for the first time.ReplyDelete
It is, without question, one of my favorite books of all time. I am a Cather fan, and personally, I think this is her best book.
She is such a beautiful writer. The way she captures the landscape, the people...oh, I love this book!
I haven't read this author, but this book sits on my shelf and by your awesome review, it sounds like I should read it soon.ReplyDelete
I read My Antonia last year, and was hoping to read another one of her books soon. Your thoughtful review makes me think that perhaps I should give this one a try.ReplyDelete
I loved both My Antonia and O Pioneers! Just skimmed your review because this books is waiting on my shelf and I don't want to know too much going in. Glad you recommend it so highly... looking forward to reading it soon!ReplyDelete
Read this one for a book club years back and just remember the stark feeling it left. The setting, the writing. I have more of her on my shelves that I'll have to try.ReplyDelete
AUDRA: Thank you! I was happy to discover that I loved Cather's writing as much now as when I read My Antonia and O Pioneers years ago. I hope you enjoy it if and when you read Death Comes for the Archbishop. I lved to know what you think of it!ReplyDelete
ZIBILEE: Thank you, it's so nice to hear since I stress over reviews. So silly of me! I love Cather's writing but if you haven't read her before, her books aren't fast-paced or full of action as I'm sure you figured out! They are the kind of books to be read slowly and savored something I always find to be a welcome change from themany books I read that move much faster. I hope you enjoy whichever of Willa Cather's books you read.ReplyDelete
Ti: They are a slow read...this one especially and I took my time reading it. I like that they're more books to be savored than finished quickly. WHat I liked about this one is because it's made up of vignettes, I could finish one or two short chapters, out the book down and come back to it in a fewdays, sometimes a week and sometimes in just a couple of hours without feeling like I was missing anything.ReplyDelete
Bermudaonion: Don't be intoimidated, you'll have no problem if you decide to read Death Comes for the Archbishop. Most of the vignettes or chapter sections are just a few pages long & you can read as much or as little at a time as you like. I have always found that Cather's books are quiet, slow reads and I take my time reading them. Cather may not be for you, though...I know several people who don't like her writing because it's quiet & slower. No worries :o)ReplyDelete
CAITE: Yes! I cannot believe I didn't read this one sooner but I'm so happy I finally read it. I should have known that in Cather's hands a book about French Jesuit missionaries setting up and running a diocese in New Mexico would be wonderful...sometimes I'm a slow learner! I'm thrilled that Cather has a long list of books for me to read, too, although I don't expect any to be as good as Death Comes for the Archbishop and My AntoniaReplyDelete
DIANE: Thank you! I love Cather's writing and I'm looking forward to reading more of her books. I hope you enjoy this book when you have the chance to read it.ReplyDelete
TheBOOKGIRL: I think Death Comes for the Archbishop is, by and large, considered Cather's best but she has a long list of books. I hope to read some others soon. Did you like My Antonia? I hope if you read this one you enjoy it!ReplyDelete
JoANN: I can't wait to read your thought on this book. I think you'll enjoy it, especially since you liked My Antonia and O Pioneers. They're different than this one but Cather's writing is still beautiful! I also skim reviews of books I hope to read soon just in case anything is given away!ReplyDelete
STACYBUCKEYE: Cather doesn't use flowery language or bolster anything. She writes what she "sees". My Antonia and O Pioneers are wonderful. There she writes about Nebraska's land so, in some ways, you still get the stark feeling but the way she writes with color, texture etc. is just beautiful. I hope when you read more by Cather you enjoy it!ReplyDelete
Can you believe it but I haven't read any Willa Cather yet. I have one or two of her books but never really felt like reading them. The way you describe this tells me I will like it very much. I love it when an author manages to capture the landscape and everything you write about her portayal of the culture of the American Indians sounds very appealing. To some extent your review reminded me of Brian Moore's Black Robe, although the writing is certainly different.ReplyDelete
I read My Antonia so long ago and shamefully (as someone who has lived her entire life in Nebraska) never picked up another of her books until this week. My book club is reading O' Pioneers this month and I'm stunned by how amazing Cather's writing is. I'm going to need to pick up "Death" soon.ReplyDelete