Full title as purchased via Kindle is (The Original) Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
Back in high school, some 30 years ago, I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. While few details stick out besides the tragic ending, I do recall that Cather’s literary environment was the west/frontier in the mid-late 19th century and the immigrant experience. In trying to find something interesting to read for CBR4, I came upon a reference to Death Comes for the Archbishop and saw that it made the Time Magazine top 100 novels since 1923 and the Modern Library’s 1998 list of the top 100 English Language novels. Based on this and vague but positive recollections of My Antonia, I chose Death for this week’s review.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is set in New Mexico in the second half of the nineteenth century and follows fictional French Catholic Bishop Jean LeTour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant in their missionary work amongst Native Americans and Mexicans. I expected the novel to follow a plot line that would involve some sort of conflict, leading to a crescendo and then the expected denouement. This novel, however, did not follow that sort of traditional story line. Instead, it is a series of smaller, more personal than historical conflicts over the span of about 40 years as Bishop LeTour expands his diocese, builds relationships with his flock, endures illness, separations and successes, and builds the Cathedral at Santa Fe. It is a story of his lifelong friendship with Joseph and his growing love for the peoples and landscape of the West. The writing is simply beautiful. Cather paints the landscape of the West with her words. She also shows an understanding and respect for both organized religion and native beliefs.
The problem I have with this story is that it lacks historical context. At the very end, as the archbishop’s health is slipping away, he reflects with happiness upon the fact that he saw the end of slavery and the Indian wars, yet the topic of slavery never comes up as part of the story, and the native wars are mentioned only in a cursory way. Kit Carson is a character in this book and is presented quite favorably as an honorable man. Yet he participated in the brutal displacement of the Navajo from their native lands, a fact which is also recognized in the story. At the end, La Tour is pleased to see that the Navajo have been allowed to return but the fact of their displacement doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on him, even though he knew some of the natives who had to leave and saw their families ripped apart.
The story of LaTour and Vaillant’s friendship is often moving, and the character sketches of some of the locals (especially corrupt priests) are fascinating and sometimes entertaining, but in the end, Death Comes for the Archbishop left me a bit disappointed. Perhaps part of my problem is that I read this after reading Caleb’s Crossing, which is overflowing with historical context and genuine conflict. And perhaps I am unfairly imposing modern understanding and sensibility upon Cather. Maybe none of us is aware of our own context — we know vaguely of wars going on, economic and social issues only as they directly impact us. We go on about our daily lives without much thought for the bigger issues. So why should 19th century missionaries be any different?