Willa Cather wasn’t Catholic, but her book “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is one of the best Catholic novels I’ve ever read. I reviewed this book for Catholic Fiction.net last year. This week for Fiction Friday, I’m posting my review again for this wonderful book. Cather’s books are free on Amazon Kindle, and are available in most libraries and bookstores.
Willa Cather’s outstanding novel Death Comes for the Archbishop tells the story of Bishop Jean Latour and his friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, as they travel to New Mexico in the mid 19th century to bring the Catholic Faith to the natives. The novel is based on the true stories of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph Machebeuf. Even the author’s choice of names is appropriate: Father Latour (the tower) and Fr. Vaillant (valiant) and describes, in part, these characters.
Cather’s graphic, yet artistic descriptions of the unforgiving landscape of the Southwest are part of the brilliance of this novel: “The sun was sinking, a red ball which threw a copper glow over the pine-covered ridge of mountains, and edged that inky, ominous cloud with molten silver. The great red earth walls of the mission, red as brick dust, yawned gloomily before him — part of the roof had fallen in, and the rest would soon go.” Cather was a gifted artist who painted the canvas of her book with rich, sensory descriptions.
The character studies are also brilliant, from the scholarly, gentle and academic Latour to his equally gentle and faith-driven friend, Vaillant. Both Latour and Vaillant have particularly non-judgmental ways of bringing the Catholic faith to others. Secondary characters like Magdalena and Jacinto are described in such a fashion that the reader feels as if he/she knows them intimately. Kit Carson, a true life friend of Bishop Lamy, makes several appearances in the book.
This novel is not without its humorous moments. When Father Latour arrives at a large ranch to perform weddings and baptisms, Father Latour asks the owner, Manuel, “Where are those to be married?” Manuel tells him that the men are in the field, but that there is no hurry, and that he ought to baptize the children first. Father Latour’s response is firm but gentle: “No, I tell you, the marriages first, the baptisms afterward; that order is but Christian. I will baptize the children tomorrow morning and their parents will at least have been married overnight.”
Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant must contend with licentious priests, abusive husbands and others throughout their long stay in the Southwest. Eventually, it becomes Bishop Latour’s deepest wish to see a Cathedral built in the new land. He and Fr. Vaillant come to respect the natural beauty of the land and the Cathedral becomes the first Romanesque church in the New World built in and part of the landscape.
I thoroughly enjoyed this 83-year-old novel and I understand why it is thought to be one of the author’s greatest works.
In the end, this story is so thoroughly Catholic, from its characters to its setting to the very illustration of the Faith that it is difficult for me to believe that Cather was not Catholic.
Copyright 2010 Ellen Gable Hrkach