Thursday, January 5, 2017

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather
Published 1927

My first post of the New Year is of a book I began last year, in December.  Most normal people would have been done with it in a week, but I took so long because of the craziness of December and my sickness.  Come the peacefulness after the storm, and I was able to finish this tranquil, little book.

Willa Cather is an artist who paints with words and descriptions.  Her writing process is quiet, sedate, and mounting.  The last book I read by her, The Song of the Lark, reminded me of a slow cooker. Now this one, Death Comes for the Archbishop, could also be a crock-pot.  

Slowly, patiently, and pleasantly Cather tells the story of a life (or lives) in progress; and the end result - the end of that life - provides a complete story.  I have read that this story demonstrates that people leave legacies, memorials of their lives; everyone can leave a legacy depending on how he lives.  

So . . . 

How are you living your life?




If you decide to read Death Comes for the Archbishop, do not expect a nail-biting plot; conflicts and climax are minimal.  Overall, the story is an even-flowing little spring or brook, bubbling its way through the years of two friends, French Catholic missionaries (a bishop and priest), sent to build up a diocese for the Indian and Mexican populations of the New Mexico Territory, around the time of pre/post Civil War.

The bishop and priest work together to navigate and survive the harsh New Mexico terrain and environment, language and cultural obstacles, racism and violence, Native American spiritualism, and the immorality of stubborn Mexican priests.

However, what truly is exposed is the dedication of both men to their lifework, their life dream.  They have risked and sacrificed their lives to accomplish their goals, and they did it patiently.  Furthermore, they were committed to live this way from a young age.

Yet, even more special is the story behind the story.  Apparently, Cather wrote this based on the real lives of the first Bishop of New Mexico and a missionary priest from France.  She wanted to narrate their stories, so often untold or forgotten, like the abandoned missionary churches of the old frontier. Additionally, she applied her own personal knowledge and experience within the story.
As a human being, I had the pleasure of paying an old debt of gratitude to the valiant men whose life and work had given me hours of pleasant reflection in far-away places where certain unavoidable accidents and physical discomforts gave me a feeling of close kinship with them.  
You could say this was a very personal work for Cather.  And if nothing else, you may admire the beautiful story of a landscape and its people, like you would an old photograph or painting of a time that once existed long ago.

10 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful review. I have had Death Comes for the Archbishop on my TBR for ages, and now that I have joined the Classics Club it is on that list too, so hopefully I will get to it sooner, rather than later. Sometimes I am really in the mood for these strolling along books that are more character based.

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    1. Thank you. It is definitely character based.

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  2. This has been on my TBR for over a decade. Maybe this will be the year I finally read it! We shall see...

    You make it sound very pleasant and educational!

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    1. It is a very slow-moving, quiet story, so typical of Cather.

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  3. I have only read My Antonia from Cather. I tried reading another of her books but became rather disenchanted with it and it turned me off Cather. However, your review leads me to reconsider my attitude. I love history and it would be very interesting to discover how the old missions in the Southwest and Mexico came to be and how they progressed. Thanks for a good review.

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    1. I can understand that reaction. I liked O Pioneers and My Antonia. The Song of the Lark was too long for me. This one is a shorter story, but it is really character and setting driven. It's like a lazy read. The fact that it is based on a true story and history of the area, makes it really come to life.

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  4. Beautiful review, Ruth!
    Now I'm getting more excited to begin with Willa Cather...

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    1. Hi, Fanda.

      She is a beautiful writer who likes to develop her characters very slowly, and she paints vivid pictures of her settings. They almost become characters, too. But her plots are small and simple. My favorite from her was O Pioneers and then My Antonia. Song of the Lark was really, really long for my taste - and at her pace, really slow. This one was fairly different from that trilogy, but it was based on a true story. Still it was a very quiet, slow-moving read; kind of like lazy day reading. : )

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  5. Yes...this book was a delight. I look forward to more from Willa Cather.

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  6. Oh, do read more from Cather.

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