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.