Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

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.

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Book 1/50 from my second Classics Club List

The Classics Spin Number is…

4!

The result of the latest Classics Spin has been revealed today – and I’m happy with the book I’ll be reading!

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced by the club today (Friday) represents the book I have to read before 31st December 2017. The number that has been selected is 4, which means the book I need to read is…

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I’m pleased with this as I’ve only read two books by Willa Cather so far and have been wanting to read more.

~

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Hemmed In edited by M.R. Nelson

This is another collection of classic short stories edited by M.R. Nelson. I have previously read two of her others – Love and Other Happy Endings and Small and Spooky – and enjoyed them both, so I was looking forward to finding out what was in store this time! Nelson calls her collections ‘taster flights’ because they give us a taste of each author’s writing; this particular book contains only one author (Willa Cather) whose work I have previously read – the other five were new to me. Although the stories are very different, they are all linked by a common theme. The title, Hemmed In, should be a clue as to what that theme is!

The opening story is A Jury of Her Peers (1917) by Susan Glaspell, in which a sheriff and a witness are accompanied by their wives on a visit to a house where, it appears, a woman has murdered her husband. This is a cleverly written story, showing how men and women can perceive the same situation differently. The two wives in the story pick up on things that their husbands would never have noticed and are able to use their own knowledge and experience to understand the misery and oppression that may have led the accused woman to commit murder. I have never read anything by Susan Glaspell before but I’m aware that two of her novels have been published by Persephone and now I’ll have to consider reading them.

Kate Chopin’s A Pair of Silk Stockings (1897) appears next and follows the story of Mrs Sommers, who unexpectedly finds herself in possession of fifteen dollars and the luxury of deciding what to spend the money on. She knows she should be sensible and buy things for her children, but when a pair of beautiful silk stockings catches her eye, she finds it hard to resist. Despite being so short, this is a powerful story about how a woman reacts when given the chance to escape her responsibilities and have just one day to herself.

The next story – probably the most famous of the six – is one that I’ve wanted to read for a while and I’m pleased that I’ve finally had the opportunity. It’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a woman is prescribed a rest cure for a ‘nervous complaint’. Spending hour after hour alone in a room at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper because she has nothing else to stimulate her mind. This is a disturbing and unsettling story, but also a fascinating one and I can see why it is considered a feminist classic.

In Little Selves (1916) by Mary Lerner we meet Margaret O’Brien, an elderly woman who is dying and looking back on her earlier life. Not having had any children, she thinks instead about the little girls who were her own younger selves and laments the fact that ‘there’s all those poor dear lasses there’s nobody but me left to remember, and soon there’ll not even be that’. This is an interesting and unusual story by an author I’ve never come across before.

Edna Ferber is yet another author I’ve never read until now and although her story The Leading Lady (1912) is probably my least favourite in this collection, I did still enjoy it. The main character is an actress on tour with a small company and suffering from loneliness and boredom. Like the woman in Kate Chopin’s story, she jumps at the chance to break out and do something different for the day.

Finally, we have a story by Willa Cather, The Bohemian Girl (1912). This one feels slightly different from the previous five as it features a male protagonist, Nils Ericson, who is returning to his hometown after an absence of many years. However, once his sister-in-law Clara Vavrika arrives on the scene and we learn a little bit about her life, I could see why this story had been included along with the others. It’s the longest and most developed story in the book – more of a novella, I would say – and I found it very reminiscent of My Ántonia.

I loved reading Hemmed In. It contains a great selection of stories, all six of which could be considered important works of feminist literature. Of course, I could have read them at any time as they have all been published in other books or are in the public domain and available online, but I wouldn’t have read them all together and that’s what makes M.R. Nelson’s anthologies so good. It’s always interesting to read her thoughts at the back of the book on why she chose each particular story and how it fits with the overall theme. Best of all, I have now been introduced to five new authors, all of whom I would like to explore further!

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia Between now and December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. There are many classic female authors whose work I’m looking forward to reading, but I decided to begin with a book by Willa Cather. I read my first (and until now, my only) Cather novel more than five years ago; it was The Professor’s House and, although I did like her writing, I wasn’t very impressed. I suspected, though, that it just wasn’t the right book for me and that I would enjoy a different one more. My Ántonia, probably Cather’s most well-known and well-loved novel, seemed the obvious choice for a second attempt.

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a lawyer, who is looking back on his childhood and his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda. Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants who are hoping to build a new life for themselves on the plains and who will become the Burdens’ closest neighbours. Ántonia is only a few years older than Jim and a friendship soon forms between the two of them.

I loved the first part of the book, showing the struggles faced by a family of immigrants trying to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle (the Shimerdas are completely unprepared for the harshness of their first winter in Nebraska). Written in the beautiful prose I remembered from The Professor’s House, there are some wonderful, vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sod houses and rough dugouts in which the pioneer families live, the tall prairie grasses and the changing seasons.

Later in the novel, Jim’s grandparents decide they are growing too old to work on the land any longer and the family move to Black Hawk, their nearest town. It’s not long before Ántonia also comes to town, to work as a housekeeper, and she and Jim renew their friendship for a while – but due to differences in background, gender and education, their lives eventually take them in very different directions. Although Jim and Ántonia grow apart over the years, both characters continue to cherish their childhood memories and their shared experiences of life on the Nebraska plains.

While Ántonia is the title character, the whole story is seen through Jim’s eyes and there are long sections, particularly in the second half of the book, where Jim is discussing his time at university or his relationship with Lena Lingard (another immigrant girl) and Ántonia is barely mentioned. However, it is when Ántonia is on the page that the story comes alive and I think this is why I enjoyed the book more at the beginning than I did towards the end.

I’m glad I gave Willa Cather a second chance and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future. If anyone else is considering reading Cather for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I would definitely recommend starting with My Ántonia!

Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

Willa Cather is an author I’ve heard a lot about but whose work I’ve never read until now.  I should probably have started with her most famous book, My Antonia, but something drew me to this one, The Professor’s House.

The Professor of the title is Godfrey St Peter, a man in his fifties, around the same age as Willa Cather was when she wrote this novel. At the beginning of the book, St Peter and his wife are preparing to move into their new home.  At the last minute the Professor decides that he doesn’t want to give up his old house just yet, so that he can continue to work in his old study and spend some time alone with his memories.

Most of the book revolves around St Peter reminiscing about his family and friends and coming to terms with the idea of leaving the past behind and embracing modern life.  At the forefront of the Professor’s thoughts is his former student Tom Outland, who had once been engaged to his daughter Rosamond. On his death in the First World War, Outland left everything he had to Rosamond – and this inheritance is causing trouble for the St Peter family.

If you prefer books with a gripping plot and lots of action you’ll want to avoid this one, as it was one of the slowest moving books I’ve ever read. I have to admit there were a few times during the first few chapters that I came close to abandoning it, but I kept reading because it was so well written. I would describe this as a calm, quiet, reflective book; one with such powerful, eloquent writing and beautiful imagery that it doesn’t really matter that not much actually happens.

The book is divided into three sections; the first and third are essentially character studies of the Professor and his family, particular his two daughters Rosamond and Kathleen and their husbands. The middle section is very different in both style and subject, as it tells in a flashback the story of Tom Outland’s life in New Mexico before he met the St Peter family. This story-within-a-story was fascinating but did feel slightly out of place, almost as if it had just been dropped at random into the middle of an entirely different book.

One of the things that stood out about Cather’s writing for me was the use of colour in her descriptions.

The grey sage-brush and the blue-grey rock around me were already in shadow, but high above me the canyon walls were dyed flame-coloured with the sunset, and the Cliff City lay in a gold haze against its dark cavern. In a few minutes, it too was grey and only the rim-rock at the top held the red light. When that was gone, I could still see the copper glow in the piñons along the edge of the top ledges. The arc of sky over the canyon was silvery blue, with its pale yellow moon, and presently stars shivered into it, like crystals dropped into perfectly clear water.

The Professor’s House is possibly a book I would appreciate more if I read it again when I’m older, as I found it difficult to identify with a fifty-two year old man looking back on his life. This was my first experience of Willa Cather and although I don’t think she’s going to be a favourite author, I will probably read more of her work at some point in the future.