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The landscape itself plays a major role in the story
on August 3, 2002
Based on two real life French Catholic priests who were sent to the American Southwest in 1851, Willa Cather's 1927 novel captures the essence of their experiences. The Mexican people, formerly ruled by Spain, had been Catholic for centuries and welcomed the Bishop, Jean Marie Latour, and his Vicar, Father Joseph. As the two men travel through the countryside, it is clear that the landscape itself is a major character in this novel. Ms. Cather's descriptions brought me right there and I could almost breath the perfume of the earth as well as feel the impact of the mountains of rock and open desert.
In what reads like a series of short stories, the priests travel throughout the area and meet a wide variety of people along the way. Always, their adventures take on mythical and religious significance, such as when Father Latour finds himself quite lost and then sees a juniper tree in the shape of a cross that leads him to food and shelter. Each of these stories has a crisis and each crisis is answered by a religious experience. This deepens the faith of the two priests who share their common religious feelings even though they have very different personalities.
Ms. Cather had the uncanny ability to capture exactly what each character felt and let the reader experience it moment to moment. Her detailed descriptions are many faceted. For example she uses the character of Kit Carson to show both gentleness and compassion as well as vile cruelty to the Indians. Always, she just lays out the story and lets the reader make his or her own judgments.
One of the problems I had with the book was my own desire to have the priests confront some difficult choice. That didn't happen. Their faith was always there. And, if there were any demons for them to conquer, it might have been a very subtle pride in what they were doing. In my mind, it made them just a little too perfect to identify with. This, however, was obviously not the author's intention which was to tell the tale as she saw it, filled with simple miracles and a loving testament to these two men whose impact can still be felt centuries later. It was a good book. I recommend it.