Friday, October 10, 2008

A New Favourite Willa Cather Novel

I chose this novel for this year's Logos reading and discussion group at Lake Murray after sitting down together and taking in the group's ideas. We talked about doing a book by Cather, and I had always wanted to read Death Comes for the Archbishop; in fact, I've checked it out at least twice but never got to it.

I first became interested in Cather after reading several novels by her friend and lifelong correspondent, Sarah Orne Jewett, a "local color" writer much like Cather but writing about New England (specifically Maine) rather than the plains like Cather. I've read a couple of Cather novels -- O Pioneers! and My Antonia, but never really took to her novels. I've also read a collection of her short stories which I enjoyed quite a bit more. But I certainly have a new favourite work in Death Comes.

In a nutshell, it's the tale, based on the lives of real priests, of true dedication to God in the life of a very young French archbishop, Father Latour ("tower" in French) who is assigned the diocese of New Mexico during the 1800's. Following God's direction and set on returning the diocese to orthodox practice while still retaining a heart of compassion and love, we watch the archbishop start as a young man and follow him until his death. Accompanied by his best friend Father Vaillant ("valiant" in French), also from his hometown in France, who is passionate about spreading the Gospel among both the Native Americans and the Mexican Americans that make up their spread out diocese, Father Latour accomplishes much good in God's Name.

What amazed me was the travel the Archbishop had to endure not only to cover his diocese but also to travel back to Rome at least twice during his tenure of Archbishop of the territory of New Mexico which belonged to Mexico at the time. The train only came as far west as St. Louis, so the Archbishop has to travel 1500 miles on the back of a donkey before catching the train to the east coast, and then a ship across the Atlantic to Italy, thence to Rome. Each visit took nearly a year to complete. Both priests traveled extensively within the diocese -- we learn of all the different people they met and helped among their flock.

It's a beautiful novel about a beautiful life lived humanly and lovingly, yet absolutely and totally devoted to God. The novel is not much like Cather's other books, but is more delicately drawn, more carefully written. It's a spare book, rather like the New Mexican landscape Cather writes about. Death Comes for the Archbishop is definitely my new favourite work written by Willa Cather.

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