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Book #35: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Shhh! Be quiet! I’m reading Death Comes for the Archbishop. Don’t bother me.

Had I wanted the environment in which I was reading book 35 to match the novel itself, I probably would’ve said something like that. Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop is a quiet, soft-spoken novel. And I’m not saying that in a critical way.

That’s just what it is. It’s a masterfully written novel that almost lulls you to sleep as you follow two priests as they journey through New Mexico Territory, baptizing babies, hearing confessions, and doing what priests do.

Death Comes For The Archbishop is kind of like Blood Meridian. Both are westerns and both involve a lot of traveling. Actually, forget that I said that. That’s where the similarities stop. In Death Comes, there’s not a brutal scene of violence on every other page. No scalping of Indians, killing of women and children, and pillaging of villages.

In fact, there’s no violence at all…these are priests after all! The Judge is thankfully missing from this novel, which means puppy dogs are free to roam without worry of being thrown over a bridge.

But, to be honest, I think Death Comes could’ve used just a touch more plot. There’s just not a lot going on–at least to keep this reader interested.

In the novel, Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Valliant travel thousands of miles back and forth throughout the New Mexico territory to take oversee their newly established diocese.

As expected, crap happens. Some of the other priests in the territory are greedy lushes. Others are into fraud and deceit. Latour and Valliant do their best to clean all the riffraff up.

Though light on plot and slightly boring, one aspect of the novel I really appreciated was Cather’s depiction of how difficult it was for the bishop to communicate with other priests within his territory.

For instance, say something “unpriestlike” is going on in a village that’s 500 miles away. To simply meet with that priest, the bishop had to load up a mule and practically walk the entire distance, camping out by fire, traveling through brush and dessert, past unknown Indian villages, to have a one-on-one meeting.

These days, what could be done in a matter of 30 minutes via phone, Skype, or even email, would have taken months, literally, during the mid-19th century. It’s really mind-boggling to think about the amount of travel these guys had to put in. I think Cather paints an impressive portrait of their faith—as what else could drive a man to take himself to these limits?

This is definitely more of a character-driven story. You really get to know these two men and begin to feel for them as they fight against the inherent issues that come with governing such a large area of land. You follow these characters moreso than you follow the plot in this book.

In many ways, I think Death Comes For The Archbishop has a lot of environmental themes. Part of that comes through in Cather’s ability to set the scene. She describes the New Mexico Territory in a way that you really feel like you’re there.

She also shows how much respect the native Indians had for this land. For instance:

[The Indians’] conception of decoration did not extend to the landscape. They seemed to have none of the European’s desire to “master” nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction, in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves…It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it.

Willa Cather in 1936. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I love that. Having spent a few months traveling throughout many of the national parks in the west about ten years ago, I “feel” that line. Though I’ll never truly understand, I think I can at least see how the awe and the beauty of the west can cause a natural reverence for the land.

This is a very spiritual book—as you can imagine—but it’s not preachy. At no point, did I get the sense that Cather was trying to make a statement about God or the Catholic church one way or the other. It’s definitely historical fiction—much of what happened in the novel takes place on a broad scale. Famous legends from the west even make an appearance in the book—for instance, Kit Carson.

In the end, for me, Death Comes For The Archbishop was a book that I picked up, read, sat down, and thought “that’s nice” and moved on. I appreciate its place on the Time list. I definitely appreciate Cather’s ability to paint with her words. That was incredible.

But, admittedly, I’m more of a plot-driven reader, and this was not a plot-driven novel. It’s not going to be very high on my highly subjective and completely problematic rankings of the books, but that doesn’t mean Death Comes For The Archbishop is a bad novel.

Maybe it just means I’m a bad reader.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “One summer evening in the year 1848, three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America were dining together in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills, overlooking Rome.”

The Meaning: I don’t know how the experts interpreted this one, but I read it in this way: Death is always coming. No matter what you do or what type of impact you make here on earth, death is coming. One of God’s men on earth—the archbishop—can’t even escape it.

Highlights: Beautifully descriptive story. You can almost taste the sand and the dirt, and you can almost feel the arid, dry air of the desert while reading Cather’s story. Powerful.

Lowlights: No plot to speak of. This might not bother some readers, but it made the book difficult to read at times. Events weren’t connected. The nonlinear story bordered on boring at times. Pacing was slow.

Memorable Line: “The Miracles of the Church seem to me not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Final Thoughts: Great writing, but Death Comes For The Archbishop just wasn’t for me. For a novel labeled as a western, I expected a little more plot and at least some hint of action. But there simply wasn’t much going on here. Definitely ready to move on.

Affiliate link included in the above post.

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. My sense is that the book is more a series of connected stories rather than a plot rich novel. Sort of vignettes of the old west.

    Your point about the “awe and beauty of the land” are spot on. Having spent my entire life in the west, I can attest to the daily, “wow, look at that sunset/mountain/tree/bird/rock/storm etc.”. Cather nails the description.

    Like

    January 25, 2012
    • If this book wasn’t about the west, I think I would’ve hated it. That was the redeeming factor for me.

      Like

      January 25, 2012
      • Hilarious! Maybe Ms. Dalloway will show up at a local kiva and really liven the sequel.

        Like

        January 25, 2012
  2. Matt #

    Brings the question….what makes a better book, the writing or the plot?

    Like

    January 25, 2012
  3. “Maybe I’m just a bad reader”

    I feel like that SO many times it’s sad.

    Like

    January 25, 2012
  4. Ooh, that’s a pretty low ranking, the bottom half. Anyway, we are on a reversal of sorts here. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian and I just read that part about puppies being thrown off a bridge and shot senselessly. Yes, nothing of that sort happens in Death, but I do remember one “violent” guy in the book. Not a major character though, and lest I give away spoilers, I’ll shut up.

    Like

    January 25, 2012
  5. Hi Robert. You’ve summed up my feelings about “Death” pretty well. I think the best thing about Cather is her writing … particularly her descriptions of the landscape. Her characterizations have only struck me as adequate. In “Death”, Bishop Latour is tall, thin, intellectual, and emotionally reserved. Father Vailliant is short, stocky, earthy, and outgoing. This is a combination we’ve seen a hundred and Cather didn’t bring anything new to them. The plot is loose and episodic. I rather prefer that to some of Cather’s “soap opera” plots, however, which might have seem shocking to readers at the time, but now come across as trite and bland. (Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” comes to mind as another example, and well most of Henry James, too … although I know what kind of guillotine I’m sticking my head into by saying that.) Anyhow, I enjoyed the column and will probably read a couple more. Peter

    Like

    April 9, 2012
  6. I love Willa Cather, and Death Comes for the Archbishop is probably one of my favorites of hers. So many fine narratives these days (both books and movies) are built on much more than plot. I like this innovation because it makes us see the details of our lives more clearly, profundity in the mundane, etc. I’m curious to see what you will think of Marilynne Robinson. I liked Housekeeping, but I loved Gilead and wish that had made the list instead.

    Like

    March 4, 2014
  7. J.E. Fountain #

    I found this to be such a peaceful enjoyable read. Loved the friendship between Latour and Vaillant. My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/07/death-comes-for-archbishop-by-willa.html

    Like

    July 7, 2015

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