It’s been awhile since I read a slow classic, over several days, and Death Comes for the Archbishop was just perfect for me: nicely paced, quiet and calm, evocative, and something that transported me to a different time. This was historical fiction even when Cather wrote it. It paints a portrait of life in the newly-acquired New Mexico region in the 1850s through 1880s, as seen through the eyes of the Catholic missionaries trying to tame and evangelize the area.
It’s hard to review a Willa Cather book. This one in particular had very little plot. Mostly, it was setting and storytelling. Though there were two main characters of sorts – the Bishop and his Vicar – the book did not follow their stories. Their stories were woven in, but for the most part, this was very slice-of-life for multiple minor characters. The book focused on stories from all different sorts of backgrounds: the Catholic priests and bishops, the various Indian tribes, the white Americans living in the area, and the Mexicans. The Bishop and Vicar both seemed in some senses very naive about different cultures. At least, they seemed to make some rather stereotypical remarks. However, they didn’t seem to have a prejudice. They were humble, and willing to learn about the people around them. Their ignorance made them more willing to grow, rather than oppressive and self-satisfied.
I grew up Catholic and hated the church, so it’s very difficult for me to sympathize with any sort of Catholic missionary efforts. Books centered on Catholicism bother me, simply because it’s too close to a sore spot in my childhood. I prefer to stay away from such books. However, I didn’t feel that way about Death Comes for the Archbishop. While these were Catholic priests and they were out to convert their territory, they didn’t feel self-righteous or arrogant.* I liked these priests. I felt like they respected their patrons and the people in their area that refused to follow Catholic rules. They loved their people. They attempted to be good people themselves, though they weren’t perfect. They believed in the power of faith and miracles, and didn’t need to enforce strictly-detailed dogmas on people who believed in the Catholic faith with childlike simplicity and who didn’t necessarily understand all the rules. In short, they put forth an effort towards peace, understanding, and spiritual bonds, rather than strict disciplinary religion. I loved that.
This was a beautiful book. I’ve never been to New Mexico, but I could see very clearly the scenery that Cather painted. She has an eye (and pen) for landscape like no other author I know, and she did particularly well here. The characters were real, even if only splashed on the page for short amounts of time. This is my favorite Cather book to date.
*Note – I’m not saying all Catholics or Catholic priests are self-righteous or arrogant. Not at all. That’s just how I feel about proselytizing efforts in general and what I would have expected a book about Catholic missionary efforts to sound like to me.