Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather really took me off guard. I, like many people, read My Antonia in school. I knew from that experience that Cather is a master word-smith, and truly paints a picture better than any other author I've ever read. She makes landscape come alive in a way that words aren't supposed to be able to do.

My Antonia fits Cather's life. Cather grew up in a small town in Nebraska, and My Antonia reflected that experience and was a melancholy, emotional coming of age story rooted in the world of immigrants in the Nebraskan prairie. The story flowed naturally out of her own past.

Because of that, Death Comes for the Archbishop really took me off guard. It's a story based on the life of the first Archbishop in New Mexico. It is a deeply Catholic novel, it is steeped in the world of the desert, Indian myth, and the history of the the southwest. It felt like a biography in story form - there is very little dressing up of the story, it is very matter-of-fact. I had to do some research on Cather's life to understand how a girl from the prairie could write about a world that was so far from her own experience. France, Catholicism, the southwest? How could she know enough to write a full novel about these things? It seems as though she was actually quite a researcher and a masterful journalist, and she really painted a great picture of the southwest through the eyes of a true historical character, a French Catholic Archbishop.

I was fascinated because I love historical fiction and this is from a period that I know very little about. The story starts just as New Mexico is made U.S. territory, and this French BishopLatour is assigned to the territory from his previous post in Mexico. He and his dearest friend, Father Vaillant , trek across the Gulf of Mexico and the desert to get to Santa Fe, and are there as their territory expands into Arizona and then up into Colorado when the gold rush hits. Cather gives you a peek into the world of the Hopi and Navajo Indians that the Bishop learns to respect despite their deeply ingrained animist beliefs. Kit Carson is a major character, and the desert is itself is very nearly a character as well.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

It was really a fascinating book, but as I said, it almost felt more like a historical biography than a work of fiction. It isn't plot intensive, though it is beautiful. For me personally it wasfascinating to see how Cather portrayed the life of a missionary. My life as the child of missionaries was of course very different than these turn of the century Catholic priests, but there are still some shared experiences. I loved this passage, where the aged Bishop is contemplating returning home to France to die or staying in Santa Fe.

[Returning to France] seemed the natural thing to do, and he had given it grave consideration... But in the Old World he found himself homesick for the New. I twas a feeling he could not explain; a feeling that old age did not weigh so heavily on a man in New Mexico as in thePuy-de -Dome. He loved the towering peaks of his native mountains, the comeliness of the villages, the cleanness of the country-side, the beautiful lines and cloisters of his own college.Clermont was beautiful, - but he found himself sad there; his heart lay like a stone in his breast. There was too much past perhaps...

Just a few pages later the aged Bishop recognizes that his memory is changing.

He observed also that there was no longer any perspective in his memories. He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a little boy, his student days in the Holy city, as clearly as he remembered the arrival of M.Molny and the building of his Cathedral. He was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible

Twisted Tree in the Badlands

All in all, I'm quite impressed with Cather's range of writing ability. I really enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop, mostly because it was about a time and place I knew nothing about.

4/5 stars.


  1. Great review. I read My Antonia for the first time a couple of years ago, and I was smitten by Cather! I still haven't read anything else, though. I need to!

  2. I loved this book! You've written an excellent review - makes me want to try to reread the book this summer.

    Thank you!

  3. Kacie, this is an excellent review. I have enjoyed every Willa Cather I've read.

    Like you, I marvel at her ability to write so compellingly about such a variety of subjects. I really enjoyed Shadow on the Rock about 18th century Montreal (? or is it Toronto?).