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Next Up: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Another Western?

I think so. This will be my first western since the unforgettable Blood Meridian.

In what seems to be a recurring theme lately, I’m not familiar with Death Comes For The Archbishop. Or, sadly, with Willa Cather. The novel is about the attempts of a Catholic bishop and priest to set up a diocese in New Mexico Territory. Doesn’t sound too riveting, but we’ll see.

A few facts:

  • Published in 1927, Death Comes For The Archbishop is one of the oldest novels on the Time list.
  • The Western Writers of America selected the novel as the 7th best Western novel of the 20th century.
  • The story is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy.
  • The author, Willa Cather, was awarded the Pulitzer in 1923 for One of Ours.
  • Cather also is famous for having written O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and The Song of the Lark.

What did Time say?

The style and structure of this book are strange, unemphatic, as if Cather had simply laid the scenes side by side in a tapestry. She compared the book to a legend, in which no event is given much dramatic weight. If this sounds like a formula for boredom, it’s not. Her serene language, with its immemorial simplicity, gives the story a weight mere drama could never provide.

Supposedly, this novel is light on plot. As a fan of plot, I’m not sure how much I’m going to like this one. But I’ll do my best to keep an open mind.

I really have zero expectations with Death Comes For The Archbishop because I know so little about it.

Have you read this book?

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have not read that one, but I read My Antonia when I was younger. I loved it! I don’t remember much about the plot, but the characters were amazing. I’ll have to put this one on my To Be Read list. I’ll have to reread My Antonia as well. I hope you enjoy it.

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    January 12, 2012
    • My Antonia is the novel I’ve always heard about as well. Characters in this one seem to be strong as well. Light on plot.

      Like

      January 12, 2012
  2. Joe Tallant #

    I have friends who read this book every year. I, on the other hand, am more a fan of Will Cather’s O’Pioneers and My Antonia. However, I being a fan of plot as well, found Death Comes For The Archbishop beautifully written, but hard to get enthused about.

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    January 12, 2012
  3. Like Andrea, I’ve read My Antonia but not Archbishop. But something I’ve noticed both here and in my own writers’ group (and elsewhere) is the tendency to confuse plot with action, or to smush the two together. “Plot” isn’t necessarily chase scenes and shoot-’em-ups. Sometimes plot is the the series of small events through which a character develops over time. That’s lower-key, but it’s still plot. Robert, I think if you’ll take that view, you’ll see there’s as much “plot” in Archbishop as there is in, say, A Clockwork Orange.

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    January 12, 2012
    • Good points, Ross. But when I say this one is light on “plot,” that’s coming directly from the horse’s mouth. Cather said that. She called the book more of a narrative. I’m going to post about that next week.

      I don’t think of plot as action, but more as a story that is moving and going somewhere–even a series of small events as you say. We’ll see how this one fairs, but I guess when I read Cather saying that, I thought “Oh no.”

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      January 12, 2012
  4. I read My Antonia and I think I hated it but I might be wrong because that was a very very very long time ago. I’m not a fan of the American prairie type western stories. I honestly can’t remember though.

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    January 12, 2012
  5. I have not read this one, although I have read some of her earlier books. I thought I would not like them, but ended up really getting a different meaning out of them, especially 100 + years after they were written. If this is not your cup of tea, do not give up on her as an author. It may be that her earlier works were better. Some authors do have a tendency to evolve over time, much to the delight or dismay of their readers.

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    January 12, 2012
  6. This is my first, and so far only, Cather book, not counting the short story Paul’s Case. Fans of plot might find this disappointing because there really isn’t anything going on. I felt a sense of unease though, but judging it outside myself, it’s about priests traveling on mules in the desert.

    And you always expect the protagonist to just die, owing to the title.

    But the “serene language, with its immemorial simplicity” is enough to keep the reader going. The editors couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate description because the narrative has a soothing effect. Fans of beautiful sentences will love this.

    Like

    January 12, 2012
  7. I read it last week and loved it. I followed it with The Power and the Glory – not my type of book, but quite powerful and moving. There is much to compare and contrast with these two. On the surface both are about priests who constantly walk/ride from city to citySpanish and native populations -but for entirely different reasons. One story is serene, the other is turbulent. you should enjoy that contrast!

    Like

    January 12, 2012
  8. Dee #

    I have read My Antonia with O Pioneers and Death Comes for the Archbishop still on my list. I read My Antonia with much trepidation. Pioneers? Prairies? A classic? These words suggested that some serious boredom was headed my way. But then a funny thing happened – I not only liked this book a lot, but I kind of loved it. And, although there were many a description of prairie grass contained therein, I didn’t mind a bit. It was actually kind of poetic, whimsical and, well, literary. All of this to say, I have high hopes for Death Comes for the Archbishop, and as a new fan of Cather’s, I look forward to seeing what you think of it.

    Like

    January 13, 2012

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