Wednesday, 29 September 1999

Willa Cather: Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

Edition: Virago, 1997
Review number: 340

Willa Cather's best known novel is one of the gentlest of the major works of twentieth century literature, like the men she writes about. Her subject, like her novel's atmosphere, is unfashionable, against the flow of modern literary concerns. For her subject is the work of pioneering Catholic missionaries in nineteenth century New Mexico, hardly one calculated to appeal in an iconoclastic, anti-religious time. Other unusual aspects of her novel include the depiction of a close friendship free of sexuality, contrary to our century's central obsession.

Her main characters, Archbishop Latour and his associate Father Vaillant, are likeable. Even though imperfect, they still command our respect. They are based on the real first archbishop of New Mexico and the friend of his who later became the first bishop of Colorado. Their sincere faith in God and the church and their obedience to their commands are at the centre of their beings.

More a character study than a traditionally constructed novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop consists of a series of isolated events from Latour's life, as he works to establish the church in New Mexico, and regain contact with the Mexican settles left over from Spanish rule of the territory, who have retained the Catholic faith in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. The title is somewhat misleading, since his death is no more important than any of the other reported incidents.

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