Sunday, April 02, 2017

Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

It might be crass to talk about pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic narratives, especially with a writer as good as Willa Cather, so let me put it this way. This Western novel challenged a lot of my own perceptions about the Catholic church, and made it seem a little more genuinely noble than I normally think of it. Cather was extraordinarily good at telling tales of the West, finding some chink in a niche and exploring it to great depths. This one takes place in New Mexico and environs (north to Denver City, east to Texas, south to Mexico, and west to Arizona) and involves the efforts of a French bishop to establish a diocese there in the 19th century. It is many small stories in the region knitting themselves together—white pioneers, Mexicans, native tribes—facilitated by the church, headed by isolated Europeans. The threads of history here go back centuries to the Spanish occupation, when the church was a mighty force in the region. Some of those descendants are still there, priests in name with churches and who hold services. But they reject celibacy and other church requirements that don't suit them. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a remarkably quiet and sprawling book, effectively covering some four decades, floating on time's currents and landing on evocative anecdotes. Even when I grew impatient with the pace or suspicious of Catholic dogma, I admired many of its characters, notably the bishop (who only becomes an archbishop late in the story) (as if I know what these titles mean). The bishop handles his power gracefully, is quick to bend and relent, but ultimately unyielding in his pursuits. He brings a lot of good and help to people who badly need it. In a similar way, this book is unassumingly confident and competent. That part of the world is wonderfully described. It's as good a Western as any. There's hardship and privation, horses and mules, interesting people from all walks of life, and spectacular mountain vistas. We learn a lot about Mexicans, natives, and the Catholic church. I might be making it sound pedantic and stiff, but it is anything but. It's a series of anecdotes built into stories skillfully strung together, outlining a life that had substance and meaning. Something universal and instantly recognized here. Recommended.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Does John Ford ever make a Cather movie? Seems like a natural connection. Also reminds me of Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera; sense of place is a big deal, latin american experience. Summer reading. Thanks.