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Death Comes for the Archbishop Paperback – September 24, 2009
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The pace is slow and peaceful, as was life during the time of this novel--the 1850's to the late 1880's. It is a beautiful story of priests, prelates and laity, whose hearts yearned to embrace the Good News and Christ and who dedicated their lives to the growth of the Catholic Church in the Southwest. The descriptions of human nature reflected through these characters are touching and inspiring. (Cather also includes others whose lives and activities were cruel and brutal.) The descriptions of the natural environment are beautiful--the landscapes, the plants, the colors, the harshness of nature. Together they open a window to a time long since passed.
While reading this book, I was talking with an economics professor about the book and he said he often assigns a chapter of it to his students in a class he teaches on American economic development to help them to see how slow and arduous travel was at that time. They have a hard time contemplating that.
I was also struck by Archbishop Jean Marie Latour, the French missionary bishop who is the central character in the book, that in his lifetime he had seen two great injustices overcome: the unjust treatment of the native peoples and of slaves in America. True, there was/is still a long road to travel on both accounts, but a start was made during this time.
Update 8/26/17: We read this book for our Catholic parish book club and discussed it. Members enjoyed it a great deal, for many of the reasons stated above.
For me, I loved the book and am glad I read it. It has inspired me once more of the value of sowing bountifully. Many good things come from that, even though we may not be aware of it at the time or even live to see it.
Death Comes for the Archbishop isn't a conventional novel of the kind we are accustomed to buying at the supermarket or airport in the early 21st century. It's written in the style of a biographical narrative and is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of New Mexico, whom we know in the novel as Jean Marie Latour.
I call it a biographical narrative (even though most of it is fictional) because there is no conventional plot. Instead, each chapter is a like a brief video of a period in the life of the main characters. In some ways, it's as close to the experience of a video as you will get in reading a book. Cather is the master of description—even more adept than Hemingway in my opinion. (This book was published in 1927, just after The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and just before A Farewell to Arms in 1929). In other ways, it's not like a movie or TV show at all since it lacks much of the fast action, emotional dialogue, and drama we often expect in screen plays.
Cather has several well-developed characters in this story, but the main one besides Bishop Latour is his closest friend, Father Joseph Vaillant. A part of the intrigue of the novel for me is how these two very different men are yet bound together in a lifelong friendship.
At first, I had a negative attitude towards the book because Cather would build up all this anxiety about an impending event—a four thousand mile journey, for example, that is fraught with danger. Then when you turn the page, she writes something like "After Father Latour returned from his journey..." My reaction was "Wait, wait wait! Where did the journey go? What happened during the trip? Where is all the suffering I expected to endure with him for a chapter or two?" After this happened a few times, I realized that Cather was not interested in writing an adventure novel--at least not a conventional adventure. Her adventures in this book are adventures of the soul.
Once I adjusted my expectations to match her intentions (as I perceived them) I really enjoyed the book. I became extremely invested in the character of the Archbishop—maybe not quite as much in the character of his friend Father Vaillant. But the book is about death coming to the Archbishop, not death coming to anyone else--though in fact death comes to quite a few in the book. And it's power comes I believe from the fact that there's no death like your own. And by drawing us so completely into the character of the Archbishop, Cather succeeds in forcing us to confront our own mortality.