Friday, December 12, 2008

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather


One of my best friends from college was a Willa Cather fan and I’ve heard Cather’s name bandied about through the years as a “great American writer”. Naturally, I was prepared to be impressed as I dove into my first Cather book, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
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The book is about two Catholic priests who go out west in 1851 to revive the Catholic communities that have been unsupervised for decades. It takes place in real time with actual people and events in American history (Kit Carson, Gadsen purchase, etc.) and is apparently based on a true story Cather read of a cathedral that had been built in Santa Fé.

Throughout the narrative Bishop Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant come in contact with priests of every stripe, but most are corrupt and self-seeking. The contrast between these two devout men and the others is purposely striking. Their deep faith and friendship is the glue that holds the story together.

The book doesn’t have the normal story elements of conflict and resolution. Instead it is a string of anecdotes of life in early New Mexico. There are unforgettable incidents like the rescue of Magdalena, the feuding friendship between Father Martinez and Father Lucero, and the vanity of Doña Isabella, but no major problem surfaces that needs resolution. I am not accustomed to this type of realism in writing and I’m not sure I like it. Although I don’t like fluff, I do like themes of redemption, growth and, above all, hope.

Confused by the seeming lack of theme in the book, I did some research and found this quote in an article by Janis Johnson. “In totality, Cather’s fiction reflects the life cycle of hopeful youth, middle-aged despair and late-in-life reflection.” That pretty much sums up the book.

The writing was very good. Cather did a marvelous job of describing New Mexico in the mid 1800’s. And her descriptions were vivid enough for me to picture each person and place in the story. But as I read, I kept waiting for lightning to strike and it never came. This book failed to move me. Will somebody please tell me what I missed?

10 comments:

Janet said...

I read this long ago in a college class. I remember liking it, but like you it's not one that moved me deeply... I don't remember much about it at all. Maybe I'll take it down from the shelf and revisit my underlinings...

Laura said...

I don't think Cather was the "lightning-strike" sort - more of an observer and painter of pictures. I read maybe three of her books (My Antonia was another one, can't remember the third) and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

Great review!

Framed said...

I've read two of Cather's books and recommend "My Antonia."

magistramater said...

Well, Hope, that is the *last* Cather I would have recommended you start with.

"Shadow on the Rock", "Song of the Lark", "My Antonia" are better choices, IMHO. Stay away from "The Lost Lady."

Cather shines in geographical descriptions. She's a landscape painter of words.

I can honestly say that I've never come away from a Cather book with a gushing endorsement. But the good stuff I do find keeps me coming back.

hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks, Carol. I'll remember that if another Cather book comes my way. =)

Phantom Inkheart. said...

Hi, I just wanted to stop by and thank you for the book you sent me for Secret Santa, I love it! Thank You!

- Victoria

Lynne said...

Hope, I haven't read this particular Cather, but I have read My Ántonia and Oh, Pioneers! and wasn't as impressed with either as I thought I'd be. There was a tawdriness and pointlessness to them that I found discouraging. I may have to try her again, but I've got lots of other things to read before I foresee making the time for more Cather.

angel said...

I think Cather's books are typical of American fiction for the time period she wrote. Like others here I recommend My Antonia but you may be a bit disappointed in this one as well. I won't go into why until you read it and maybe post about it. Magistramater's comments were bang on, I'd say!

Nancy Nurse Blog said...

I'm sorry. Perhaps I'm just old fashioned, but I have loved Willa Cather's writing since the first time I read "Death Comes For the Archbishop," (which was my first Willa Cather book) many years ago. She had such an eye for landscape and her use of language just sings. No, there's no "sex, drugs or rock n' roll" in her writing. No romance either. Yet it moves along like the rivers and the seasons she so eloquently paints for us. Take a deep breath. Smell the grass or leaves under your feet. And take any Willa Cather book with you outside to read in the sunshine.

hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks, Nancy, for your comment. I've appreciated everyone's input here. I'm willing to be proved wrong about Cather and may give her another try.