There is a magical quality to Willa Cather’s writing that greatly affects me. I have long been an admirer of My Antonia and can’t read more than 2 sentences of that entrancing novel without getting teary. It’s not so much the subject matter that moves me (though it does) but the words themselves, the images they create, the feelings of sympathy they evoke.
I found the same quality in Death Comes for the Archbishop. I am not shy to state that this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I felt transported while reading it, lifted above the everyday dinginess of my own life to a land that is brutal and fierce but where nature rules and is beautifully infused into the lives of the people. I very much admire the way Cather writes about nature. Her respectful and praising attitude toward the landscape of New Mexico or Nebraska or whatever place she is writing about becomes almost central to the story – a character itself.
This novel takes place in New Mexico, the land of enchantment. Father Latour, a French priest who has been serving in Ohio, is sent to be the bishop of the Santa Fe mission. The year is 1851 and the journey out to the west is treacherous. After much hardship he arrives among the juniper trees and red hills of his new diocese. The people of Santa Fe will at first not acknowledge his authority, but he finally wins them over and becomes a beloved figure in the town. He soon sends for his best friend and fellow priest, Father Vaillant, to join him. The two men have been inseparable since they were in seminary together and Father Latour relies on his much more energetic and charming friend to grease the wheels of progress among the natives and Mexican citizens of the area. Father Latour is more of a dreamer, a reserved and cultured man who loves the people he serves, but doesn’t like conflict.
The book doesn’t really have a straight narrative. It is comprised of sketches in the life of these two noble men that progress through the years of their service in the area. We meet many of the members of their diocese, many of them simple people who love God and are devoted to goodness. We also meet scoundrels and wealthy villains who make life difficult for the church.
While this is not a fast-moving novel or what some would call gripping, I was hooked from the first page. I think it may have more meaning to me because I am from the southwest and enjoyed reading about what life was like here during the 19th century and I love the descriptions of the trees and plants and rocks that are so familiar to me.
Magic and magnificence emanate from this tale. I could enthuse non-stop about how much I loved it, but instead I will urge you to discover the beauty for yourself.