Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Death Comes for the Archbishop

It's probably been 20 years since I last read a book by Willa Cather: My Antonia, which I absolutely loved.  I can't say why it has taken me so long to pick up another of her novels, but I recently finished the acclaimed Death Comes for the Archbishop

This book has a great deal of appeal to me.  I am fascinated with stories about pioneers, and about the Navajo and Apache nations (as well as the Sioux and the Comanche and the Arapaho and so on...).  I love the flat desert lands of the American Southwest.  I've seen Shiprock, been to Santa Fe and stood in awe of the sand dunes and mountains and canyons.  So again, it's a puzzle why I haven't read it sooner.

The protagonist is Father Jean Marie Latour, a French priest who has spent several years living in Ohio before being named to the newly-created post of Bishop of New Mexico.  He comes to the sparsely-populated territory, bringing his lifelong friend Father Joseph Vaillant, to find a brutal and breathtaking land.  The Mexican citizens are generally quite devout, the Indians range from tolerant to hostile and the Americans either embrace these wild lands or try to take advantage of the indigenous people. 

Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant represent everything that is admirable about the Church.  They are tough guys who ride on horseback for weeks at a time, sleeping under the stars, to care for (and bring the Word to) the people within their Bishopric.  They are kind and smart and resourceful.  They respect the beliefs of the Indians and insist that every local priest does the same. 

The main theme of this book is not the taming of the American West, and there is actually very little conflict throughout.  It is about friendship and loyalty, and about human relationships.  It is written so beautifully that Cather's language is to be savored.  There are a few pages near the end of the book where Cather describes the respect of the Navajo for nature; the words made me catch my breath.  In the end, Bishop Latour dies "of having lived," leaving an indelible mark on both the landscape and on the reader.

Next up: A reread of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, this time in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: this book is amazing, wonderful, can't-miss... Join me!

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