Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather writes the most starkly beautiful descriptions of the U.S. southwest I’ve ever read. And having grown up in the southwest myself, I’ve been made to read many. But none so simply breathtaking or evocative as hers. Red canyons, proud mesas, intricately-patterned Navajo rugs before crackling fires and the smell of hardened, leather tack…ah, home!
The archbishop of the book’s title is Jean Latour, who roams nineteenth century New Mexico just after it’s been acquired by the U.S. aiding the establishment of a Catholic diocese. He travels there with Father Joseph Vaillant, a boyhood friend from their days at seminary. Their friendship deepens as they grow older, and it’s lovely to see it develop. Each character wields their influence differently; sometimes with total respect for the very different peoples and cultures they encounter (Mexican, Spanish, Hopi, Navajo, among others), but other times, myopic greed serves as primary guidance for their actions. The varieties of ways in which this power plays out adds depth and believability to the book’s various players. The book is not so much a story of their doings, their comings and goings–it reads more like a quaint collection of snapshots from lives carefully, thoughtfully lived. It’s an interesting insight, too, into the religious politics of the region in the mid-1800’s. Cather’s writing is simple and quiet, but the effect is profound.
I appreciated this book a lot more than I expected to. If you haven’t, I urge you to pick it up!