This is the first book I’ve read from my new Classics Club list and my third by Willa Cather. I’m grateful to the recent Classics Spin for choosing it for me because although I do like Cather’s writing I seem to need something to push me into picking up her books. This one could have lingered on my list for a long time otherwise, which would have been a shame as once I started reading it I loved it. It’s certainly my favourite of the three I’ve read so far (the others are The Professor’s House and My Ántonia).
Death Comes for the Archbishop is set in the nineteenth century and follows the stories of Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant, two French missionaries who have been sent into the newly formed diocese of New Mexico – territory which has recently been acquired by America. As they begin their work of spreading their faith to the people of New Mexico, they face a number of challenges. The landscape, although beautiful, is harsh and often inhospitable; the railroad has not yet arrived so travel must be by mule over difficult terrain. When they do eventually reach other settlements, they are disappointed to find that the Catholic priests already established in these communities are, in most cases, not suitable for the job. They are either corrupt, greedy, too powerful, too weak or insufficiently devoted to their religion.
It is the task of Father Latour, with the help of Father Vaillant, to decide how to tackle these problems, while also learning to love his new home and getting to know the people who have lived there for generations. These include not only Americans and Mexicans, but also the Hopi, Navajo and other Native American people, whom Cather writes about with sensitivity and sympathy. Each group have their own customs, traditions, stories, histories and superstitions and as all of these things are new to the Bishop and his friend, the reader is able to learn along with them.
I have never been to New Mexico so as I read I found myself turning to Google for images of the deserts and hills, mesas and pueblos, plants and trees that are mentioned in the novel. After Latour visits the pueblo of Acoma and hears about the legend of the Enchanted Mesa, for example, I wanted to see what it would be like to live in such a harsh and isolated location. Cather writes beautifully about the New Mexico landscape; her use of colour is wonderful, helping to bring her descriptions to life. Here is the moment when Latour arrives at Santa Fé for the first time:
As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-coloured hills lying at the foot of the mountains came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fé, at last! A thin, wavering adobe town…a green plaza…at one end a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow from it like a stream from a spring. The church towers, and all the low adobe houses, were rose colour in that light,–a little darker in tone than the amphitheatre of red hills behind; and periodically the plumes of poplars flashed like gracious accent marks,–inclining and recovering themselves in the wind.
My favourite aspect of the novel is the relationship between Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant. The two men have known each other since they were students together at the seminary in France and I found the depiction of their friendship very moving, particularly later in the book when Father Vaillant has the chance to take up a new mission far away; the Bishop, who can’t bear to lose his companionship, must decide whether to keep his friend with him for selfish reasons or to let him go and give him the chance to develop his own career elsewhere and carry out the work which will make him happy. The characters are based on real historical figures – Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf – but I like the names Cather has chosen for them. Vaillant, meaning ‘valiant’, is perfect for Joseph, who is brave and energetic, warm and friendly, while Latour (‘the tower’) is quieter and more reserved, finding it more difficult to open up and make friends. Their different qualities, different strengths and weaknesses are what make them such a successful partnership.
Death Comes for the Archbishop has no real plot, being more a series of little stories and vignettes spread across a number of years and describing the various experiences Latour and Vaillant have as they travel around the New Mexico diocese. I do prefer novels that strike a balance between the plot-driven and the character-driven, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this book – it got my new Classics Club journey off to a great start! I’m looking forward to reading more Willa Cather and I think the next one I pick up will be either Shadows on the Rock or A Lost Lady.
Book 1/50 from my second Classics Club List