Death Comes for the Archbishop  – ★★★★
This novel, which spans from 1848 to 1888, focuses on Jean Marie Latour, a young Frenchman recently appointed as a Vicar Apostolic in the state of New Mexico, a part of land which has only recently been annexed to the US. The Father becomes a new Bishop in the region and he came there with his loyal friend and compatriot Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests face a whole array of problems in establishing a religious jurisdiction in the new area, from the region’s isolation and merciless climate to authority challenges on the part of Mexican priests. This historical novel can be called a “descriptive tour de force”, rather than a straightforward narrative story. It is more of an anthropological/historical travelogue, focusing on the nature of land and on the people living on it, rather than a linear story. However, this does not make this book a “lesser” novel. On the contrary, Cather leaves plenty of space in the book for colourful descriptions of exotic environs, paying attention to the particular themes, including the ardour of religious duty and the dilemmas of missionary work.
Willa Cather sets her novel in interesting times in a land “barely discovered” and in many aspects – still unknown (“in a dark continent”) [Cather, 1927: 21]. The land and the region take the central place in Cather’s story. We get to know such places in New Mexico as Santa Fe and Albuquerque (obviously), but also Pueblos Acoma and Taos, among others. We are permitted in this story to “savour” each of these places and their atmosphere: “as far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sand-hills”…”they were so exactly like one another that he seemed to be wandering in some geometrical nightmare”…”[the] mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape” [Cather, 1927: 18, 95].
The author based her book on real historical events, drawing inspiration from the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy [1814-1888]. The novel provides a curious insight into another life and place, and it is always fascinating to read about the establishment of a religious order in a completely foreign and unknown land, about the challenges that this feat presupposes: “that is a missionary life; to plant where another shall reap” [Cather, 1927: 39]. Such books as Shūsaku Endō’s Silence  and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible  deal with this theme thoroughly. In the same vein, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, we simply follow two priests who go about their business, visiting villages under their religious jurisdiction. Along the way they meet various characters (some threatening and some very kind), and there are stories within stories. The encounters with Native American, Mexican, American and European characters are presented vividly alongside certain insights, such as on the mentality of Native Americans or on the nature of worship: [American Indians] seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction, in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves” [Cather, 1927: 234].
Father Latour (Bishop) and Father Vaillant (Joseph) soon realise that in new and hot New Mexico their duties encompass not only priestly matters, but they also have to be part diplomats, part traders, part translators, part governors and even their own cooks – all by sheer necessity. The two men share great friendship, but as Father Latour grows more lonely and homesick as time passes, his colleague Father Vaillant, who can feel at home anywhere, feels invigorated by the challenges and want to help as many people as possible. Also, if Father Vaillant overlooks material possessions and prefers to live humbly, Father Latour has a deeper appreciation and craving for material things that will stand the test of time. So, he decides that a magnificent cathedral should be built in the area so that this building will be “a continuation of himself and his purpose, a physical body full of his aspirations after he had passed from the scene” [Cather, 1927: 175].
One negative aspect of the novel is that Willa Cather sometimes blatantly casts aside the golden rule of fiction “show, don’t tell”, but, to compensate for that, the slow-moving novel also has descriptions that never rush forward and this allows the story itself a space “to breathe”. There are also some generalisations and stereotypes presented, especially regarding native Mexicans as they are contrasted with “educated” Europeans, and Cather should have stuck to just one name for each of her main characters because both of them have three names each in the story and the author uses them interchangeably, causing confusion.
This book with a rather “scary” title hides a gentle narrative that focuses on a particular place and its peculiarities – New Mexico in the mid-1800s. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a fine literary homage to the region’s beauty, mysteries and history.