Archive for the ‘Willa Cather’ Category

DCF 1.0I came across this fine book in the ‘Five Best’ section of the WSJ,  a weekly feature in which a well known author supplies of list of favorites in some topic–war, theatre, growing up, whatever.  Colm Tóibín, an Irish novelist, selected his notion of the best books on religion. Death Comes for the Archbishop instantly caught my eye–I had such a clear vision of seeing it, up on a tall bookshelf in the library at Skellfield School, the place in Yorkshire where I spent some years as a girl. But apparently, I hadn’t read it then, for it was completely new to me. Willa Cather writes in such a clear, pure style–she is not playful or witty in the slightest, but her books are instantly apprehendable, and deeply pleasing.

The story is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a missionary to Arizona in the early 1800’s–a very good man, deeply devout and dedicated to his parishioners. Cather’s fictional archbishop, Jean Marie Latour, leads a complicated and fascinating life, never forgetting his dear village in France and the civilization he left behind, but entranced with the new world–so huge, so challenging–often, dangerous, and even fatal–and yet, so magnificently beautiful. The descriptions of the country, and of the incredible hardships faced by these early settlers, are riveting–the railroad hadn’t yet crossed the country, and it took a year of hard traveling to get to Santa Fé from the Gulf of Mexico. Once finally there he finds it is an enormous task to establish his diocese, and encounters constant difficulties–often caused by the ill will of the entrenched Spanish-Mexican church. In his work he is aided by Father Joseph Vaillant, a priest totally different from himself, whom he befriended in seminary school. Vaillant is a man of the people, simple and uneducated, whereas Latour is a scholar, with sophisticated tastes, almost aristocratic, and yet somehow, they complement each other, and their deep friendship is a constant thread in the book.

The book is filled with the stories of the early settlers–Kit Carson being one of them!–the Indians, treated with great sensitivity by the author and the priests–and, most of all, the land itself:

“The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

After a long and worthy life, Latour chose to die in Santa Fé rather than return to his beloved home in France. American New Mexico was his country, his home now, and the splendid cathedral that he had caused to be built was his final resting place.

A fine book, as I said. I have put some other quotes here.
Gutenberg has the book, here.


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