Thursday, April 12, 2012

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Title: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Author: Willa Cather
List: #61 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #89 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop has a rather dramatic title, evoking thoughts of murder mysteries or thrillers or perhaps a historical account of an archbishop’s untimely demise. But Willa Cather’s novel is no such thing. Rather, it is a moving account of a missionary priest’s full life in the brand new American southwest. And it is quite different from the two other Willa Cather novels I have read (My Ántonia and O Pioneers!).

The novel introduces us to newly minted Catholic Bishop Jean Marie Latour, who is granted the diocese of New Mexico shortly after it becomes an American territory. We see New Mexico in its virtually untamed state through the eyes of Bishop Latour and his friend and fellow missionary Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests struggle to unite the diocese and tend to the needs of their people with nothing but a horse or mule to help them cross the vast distances. The author lovingly describes the rugged landscape and the Mexican people and culture. She also introduces us to Navajos and other Native Americans who are vital to the physical and mental survival of the priests.

Although the plot is concerned with establishing the diocese and ministering to the Catholic flock, the language and mood epitomizes the majestic grandeur of the Southwest. The characters seem to serve as vehicles through which the author can communicate her love for the culture and landscape of New Mexico. In that sense, the book is more of a Western, but one with a completely different viewpoint. And because of that unique perspective on a beautiful region, I think the book is worth reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment