Sunday, December 14, 2014

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather)

Times have changed so much in the last 150 years that it's hard to fathom.  150 years ago we were fighting the Civil War, and there was a frontier where the living was hard and dangerous, and there was no delicious Willett single barrel 4-year old straight rye whiskey available for bloggers like me to sip on while the desperately try to write something slightly interesting and remotely relevant.  Hard to imagine.  So what did men and women do out on the frontier back in those rugged days if they couldn't fall asleep while trying to read my latest lame blog post?  Well, if you're like the main character of this book, Archbishop Jean Marie Latour, you saved men's souls while doing a lot of horseback/muleback riding.  Yes, it seems that for an archbishop in the old southwest frontier days horseback riding was part of the job description.  An archbishop could drink wine too, apparently, but there was no rye whiskey...or at least none in this novel.  Hard living indeed.

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" is based closely on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a French Roman Catholic prelate who served as the first archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Lamy was a French priest who got the missionary bug, and came to the US to work in Ohio in 1839.  In 1850, the pope sent him to New Mexico to be a bishop.  He eventually became archbishop, and oversaw the building of the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe (pictured above), before retiring in 1885 and dying in Santa Fe three years later.  The novel follows Cather's version of Lamy, Jean Marie Latour, as he and his vicar buddy Joseph Vaillant wander around the desert southwest, spreading Catholicism and administering to the whites, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Native Americans, and everyone else.  They have to contend with snowstorms, windstorms, dust storms, rebellious priests, outlaws, suspicious Native Americans, and the vast loneliness of the desert surroundings.  It's pretty cool actually, the contrast of the spreaders of a very organized European religion lead by an aristocratic French intellectual, with the almost unfathomable vastness of the desert frontier and the myriad of issues and tensions surrounding the coming together of so many cultures...French, Spanish, Native American, mountain men, gold miners, etc.

The novel essentially has no plot.  It is more a collection of anecdotes describing the adventures of the Fathers Latour and Vaillant as they minister across the southwest.  And I use the word "adventures" loosely.  Very loosely.  Sure, there was the time they narrowly escaped being murdered, and rescued their would-be murderer's abused wife.  But most of the stories are much more subtle, describing a clash of cultures that isn't really a clash, just different types of people trying to figure out how to live together.  The book is really almost meditative.  Not all that much happens, yet it's easy to get caught up in the book's subtle rhythm and just go along with it.  Some might call it a slow read, but I think that misses the point.  To me the writing is reminiscent of the southwest itself...calm, vast, inspiring awe.  I'm not a religious man, but I couldn't help admiring the characters' devotions to the people in their diocese.  And while the two main characters are vastly different (Latour is more inward focused and reflective, while Vaillant is a fearless extrovert with a huge personality), they both love each other and the people living in their congregation.

Eventually Latour leads the construction of the cathedral at Santa Fe, while Vaillant is called to minister to an influx of gold miners into Colorado.  The two grow old separately and do not see one another again.  Latour eventually retires. lives for awhile longer just outside of Santa Fe, then becomes ill and dies peacefully.  Which brings me to the book's title.  WTF?  Yes, death came for the archbishop, but not until he had a long, full life.  So why is the title relentlessly focused on his death?  Perhaps the rye whiskey is making me foggy, but I have no idea.  Whatever...this is a good book.  It is very different from My Antonia, but well worth reading to get a flavor of what it was like out on the frontier of this country 150 years ago.  To us it would be like another world, as it was to the archbishop...a world long gone by.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I love Willa Cather. Matter of fact, my next post next week will be about her if you're interested.