Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop is the first of Willa Cather’s books I’ve read that isn’t set in Nebraska, and I initially wondered whether I would enjoy a book by her that wasn’t about pioneers on the prairies. I needn’t have worried; this book is about pioneers, anyway (though not the sort I’m used to reading about), but instead of flat grasslands it is set amongst the uncharted lands of the stunningly beautiful, mountainous New Mexico desert, red and orange and pulsing underneath the heat from the vast, ever changing blue sky. It mesmerised me from the first page, and I could hardly bear to put it down. The title is misleading; it’s not a depressing or melancholy book, and it’s not about death at all. It’s about two French Catholics, Father Latour, the Archbishop of the title, and Father Vaillant, who arrive in the newly acquired American territory of New Mexico, to provide religious instruction to the unshepherded population of Mexicans, Indians and pioneering Americans in this barren and lawless desert. Father Latour is given the Bishopric of New Mexico after having worked as a missionary in Ohio for several years, and his long and arduous journey of over a year to travel between the two will be just the beginning of his struggles in this strange new land.

Together the two Frenchmen, friends from boyhood, work hard to establish relationships within their new community. Intelligent, devout, and kind, Father Latour is a calm and considerate Priest, whose people revere him and grow to love him over his many years of service to them. His close relationship with the Native American population is testament to his ability to understand their culture and ways and not attempt to impose his own upon them. Father Vaillant; passionate, devoted to the people, impulsive and adventurous, can be rash and insensitive, but his willingness to lay down his own needs for those of the people he is serving, and his loving, generous nature, make him a favourite amongst everyone he meets. Both initially struggle in the inhospitable and alien climate of New Mexico, and are discouraged by the lack of progress they seem to be making amongst the people whose way of life has not changed for centuries, but gradually they grow to love this new land, with its beautiful red cliffs and fertile valleys, simple, generous people and aura of peace and tranquility. Unusually amongst the novels I have read depicting Native Americans, Cather treats the plight of the various tribes living in this region with great sensitivity and respect, and her meticulous descriptions of their way of life amongst the cliffs and rocks, their cultural traditions and religious beliefs, are absolutely fascinating.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a series of vignettes of life in New Mexico; from the newly declared capital of Santa Fe, to the desert rock country of Acoma. This is a land without railroads and passable roads where journeys are treacherous and take many days; every trip, no matter how small the mileage, is a true adventure. There are stories of Indian folklore, of sticky ends of past Priests who tried to convert the wild Indian tribes, of the faithful sister of Father Vaillant and her fellow nuns back in France, hanging on the words of their beloved brother in the New World, whose adventures are thrilling and exotic to this group of women who have never left their small French country village, and of the new American settlers, swiftly beginning to place their own stamp on the rugged terrain they are now entitled to call home. There are murderers, there are theives, there are hostile natives and hypocritical, corrupt and lazy fellow clergy to contend with, but Father Latour and Father Vaillant endure it all with faith, hope, tenacity and good humour, and they are richly rewarded. Their endearing, beautiful, and devoted friendship is the major theme of the book, and Father Latour’s struggle to remain unselfish and allow Father Vaillant to leave him and fulfil his missions far from him and the home they have together is very moving indeed. The depiction of the New Mexico landscape and the indigenous people’s dying way of life amongst its mountains and plains, however, is the major backdrop to the events, and really the star of the show. Anyone reading this who doesn’t want to instantly drop everything and head to the plains that are pierced with undulating red mountains, see the ever changing, endless sky, and wander amongst the pueblos and cacti¬† must have no sense of beauty or adventure – if I didn’t have a job to turn up to on Monday, I’d be half way there already.

Cather has an unique talent. Her ability to depict the American landscape, the humanity and individuality of its myriad of different peoples and to draw the reader in with her effortless, sparse, yet beautiful prose is breathtaking. There isn’t a novel of hers that hasn’t brought me completely into its world, and Death Comes for the Archbishop had me in tears at the end. It’s such a human story, of faith and friendship and doubt and strength, and the bravery of people prepared to go into the complete unknown to tame a landscape known to none but a handful of natives. It might not be set on the Nebraska plains, but it is a story of brave pioneers nonetheless, and another paeon to the hope and tenacity of immigrants and natural born Americans, determined to strike out and succeed in the wilds of the West. It’s actually based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first Bishop of New Mexico, which I didn’t realise while I was reading it. I’d love to find out more about him; Cather’s portrayal makes him out to be a truly remarkable man.

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22 comments

  1. So glad you liked it. My mother first read this book out loud to us in childhood; like you, it had me on the first page. My husband is an Army officer currently deployed to Afghanistan. I keep him stocked with new books, and this one is next on the list to read together long-distance. It’s always a treat sharing an old favorite with someone else for the first time. The wonderful thing about great books is that no matter where you’re from, where you live, or how far apart you are, they can draw you into the same world, and introduce you to the same ideas, landscapes, and people. Not only are they great literature, they’re a great place to meet up for a long-distance date!

    1. Hi Sarah! What an amazing book to have read to you so young – it just goes to show, you don’t have to stick to children’s books to mesmerise young imaginations!

      How fantastic that you and your husband share your reading over such a long distance – that’s just so lovely and I bet you really enjoy those conversations. I hope with all my heart that he gets back to you safely soon.

  2. Another lovely Cather review, Rachel… you aren’t making it any easier for me to choose my next book ;-) My brother-in-law and his family live in Santa Fe, so we’ve had opportunities to visit over the years – such a beautiful place with a rich history.
    I ‘m finally reading Easter Parade by Richard Yates and just loving it! Should finish today – will need to take a peek at your other Yates reviews. I’ll be reading more!

    1. Thanks JoAnn! I hope that next book will be a Cather – I am doing my best to convince the world to read her! :) Oh how wonderful – I am jealous. I must try and get down to Santa Fe this year to see it for myself.

      Brilliant! I can’t wait to see what you think. Disturbing the Peace and Young Hearts Crying are fantastic too – I still have a couple of books of his I need to get read – must try and do that soon.

  3. What a lovely thoughtful review! I’m scheduled to read this with my IRL classics group in June and it will be hard to wait! I’ve read three Cathers so far and really liked them all so I am very much looking forward to it. I have been to New Mexico and it is stunningly beautiful. It’s been years so perhaps this book will inspire be to return soon.

    1. Thanks Karen! I am sure you will love it and it will be such a rich book to discuss with others – I wish I’d had that chance.

      I am jealous! I would really love to visit New Mexico and see some of the places I read about. Maybe this year! I will have to wait and see.

  4. You have a remarkable ability to take me into the soul of the books you review, Rachel. You did so with this one. I feel I already know Fr. Latour and Fr. Vaillant, though I have not read Death Comes for the Archbishop, for reasons I do not know. Perhaps the title sounds so sad – or it was not required reading at some point. I should remedy this sad state of my reading affairs sometime soon.

    New Mexico is a beautiful place, Rachel, and you write of it as if you were there. It is an interesting part of our country – a fascinating state in its landscape, culture, history and in its settlement. I hope you get to visit it sometime. I loved it when we went, which was, interestingly enough, in February. The snow is Santa Fe did not detract from its beauty as we wandered the streets and ate the most delicious of fare, outdoors, snow surrounding us, fireplaces keeping us warm. Your review makes me anxious to return.

    Happy Valentine’s Day!

    1. Oh, thank you, Penny. You always say such kind things! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review and I hope you will pick it up soon and get as much pleasure from it as I did. :)

      How lucky you are in having had the chance to go to New Mexico! I do hope I manage to go – you have made it sound absolutely wonderful.

      Thank you! Nothing romantic going on in my neck of the woods but I hope you have a lovely day!

  5. This is a lovely review. I haven’t read this book in ages and you brought it all back. I do remember reading this the first time, long ago. When I got to the description of the pueblos it was as if all the background noise around me was suddenly switched off. It was so vivid and absorbing. A little of it pops up in Song of the Lark as well.
    What I’m really starting to appreciate in Cather is her ability to create fascinating, complete characters who are uncynical, unironic, and good. I love that. So often novelists seem to think that a character can’t be genuine unless he has a dark side. I love Cather’s belief in the good.

    1. Thank you Nancy, I’m so glad you loved this as much as me. It really is a vividly depicted book and another example of how fantastic Cather is at evoking a unique sense of place in her writing.

      Yes, Cather shows such a love for humanity and a belief in the overpowering force of good they possess – her books make me feel good about the world, even though they often have a rather melancholy undertone. It’s a rare gift!

  6. I’d have been so jealous if you’d skipped work and headed off to New Mexico, Rachel .. . that was so much what I wanted to do when I read this last year.

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