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#61….Death Comes for the Archbishop

November 11, 2011

“The difficulty was that the country in which he found himself was so featureless–or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike.”

We’ll start this review with what this book ISN’T. Just so we’ll all be on the same page:

1)It isn’t fast-paced, heart-racing literature. The plot is slow and meandering, almost more of a gentle meditation than a true story.

2)There are almost no women in this book, which was weird. It’s like the Giant Sausage Party of literature.

3)So there’s no romance (or bromance, sorry) either, which is a good thing, because the main characters are Catholic priests.

4)Even though the title might fool you, this book is not really about death. At all.

So after reading the above, you might ask, what is Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop about, already? It is the story of two French missionaries, the newly bishoped Father Jean Latour and his childhood friend and vicar Father Joseph Vaillant, and their low-drama escapades to bring the Catholic religion to the Indians and Mexicans in the territory of New Mexico. The priests have their work cut out for them, as the Indians are still firmly entrenched in their mystical beliefs and the Mexicans are firmly anti-foreigners after being cheated and abused by the Spanish. Luckily Fathers Latour and Vaillant are hardy, devout, and compassionate souls, who acclimate quickly to the harshness of the New Mexican terrain and reach out to their parishioners.

I read this book for the first time back in 2009. Reading this book is really what jump started me to begin this blog, as I was reading through the Modern Library list and the title of this book caught my eye. I was not disappointed then, nor was I this time. What I love about this book is how epic it is in its non-epicness. There is plot, there is movement, there is drama, although it’s not high drama by any means. The book is really more of a character study than a true novel. We’re tempted to exalt the characters of both Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, since they are priests. For sure both are low maintenance men of God, with few possessions and fewer vices, yet there are still some moments in the book where both men are imperfect and flawed. Cather continues to hammer at our stereotypical views of the clergy when she introduces other corrupt priests and missionaries that Latour and Vaillant encounter during their travels in New Mexico. Those guys are a bunch of dirtbags that make even the imperfect Latour and Vaillant look like saints.

Ironically, my favorite parts of the book involve women characters, who are definitely at a premium in this book. I love when the doves land on Magdalena, who (like Mary Magdalen was saved by Jesus) was saved by the French priests who rescued her from a hellish and abusive relationship. I also love when Father Latour brings Sada, a slave girl shivering in the cold, into the church to pray with him, as she is forbidden to openly practice her faith by her owners. Sada’s appreciation of the little things brings Father Latour’s sagging faith back to life during a difficult time.

It’s interesting that Cather would choose to title her book as she did, considering that maybe the last 20 pages of the book are in any way really about death. Ironically, I felt the book was not about death, but about life….. a reflection on how we live our lives day-to-day, the choices we make, the regrets we might have, and what we will leave behind us when we go, because Death will eventually come for all of us. The book is presented as a series of vignettes, jumping around in time sometimes days, sometimes decades, and not always chronicling major life events, which is why many might think Death Comes for the Archbishop is pretty weak on plot-line. Most lives, though, are like this. Admit it. It’s okay. If someone dropped in on nine random times in my life, like this book did with its French priests, it might get boring (and ugly) pretty quick (Sunday morning would be the worst. I’d be sitting around in my sweatpants, on my third cup of cold coffee, reading my Nook and arguing with my husband about when I’m going to clean the catbox. But I digress). I feel that Cather chose these seemingly random scenes from their lives to tell us more about her characters and the kind of people they were, even though the events may not have been overtly important or even interesting. The quote from the book that I opened the posting with illustrates this perfectly…a life featureless, yet crowded with features, as the hills around Santa Fe were.

I was sad to finish this book, as it was so relaxing to read every night before I went to sleep. A very peaceful and thought provoking read.

Grade: A-

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2011 6:10 pm

    I downloaded this onto my kindle like a year ago and I havent read it or had any idea what it was about! Willa Cather isnt as well known in the UK so it’ll be interesting when I do read it as I have no pre-conceptions.

    Thanks for the review

    • November 15, 2011 2:19 am

      I think you will like it. It is very calm and atmospheric. I liked reading it before bed.

  2. November 18, 2011 3:21 am

    I haven’t read this one yet, so I enjoyed hearing that this is one of the things that spurred you into book blogging. I really love Willa Cather, but really don’t like deserts/hot climates…so I’m glad to know it’s more of a character study–that sounds much more enjoyable than a desert study. 🙂

    • November 23, 2011 2:28 am

      I really didn’t feel this book focused on the desert that much, so you will be fine. 🙂

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