Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather

Vintage 1990 [1927]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Missionary Jean Marie Latour arrives in Santa Fe in 1851, to be vicar and then bishop of New Mexico, recently incorporated into the United States. Death Comes for the Archbishop describes episodes in Latour's career and that of his friend and colleague Father Vaillant. It also tells the stories of earlier Mexican priests: the friar of a high-perched Indian mesa town, lordly and overbearing but still on sufferance of the local community, and the licentious Padre of Taos and his friend the miser of Arroyo Hondo. Legendary frontiersman Kit Carson has a cameo appearance.

The other major protagonist in Death Comes For the Archbishop is the land itself, with Cather vividly describing landscapes and settlements.

"A line of young poplars linked the Episcopal courtyard with the school. On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came, — old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom."

All of this is based on history, with the key characters renamed, but it is romanticised and mythologised history. The destruction wrought on the Navajo, for example, is touched on but glossed over, while Cather's account is so sympathetic to the Church that I was surprised to find that she was not herself a Catholic.

In other ways the central characters remain one-dimensional, but Death Comes For the Archbishop is at its core a study in the power of religious faith, looking back to Latour and Vaillant's childhood and education in France and focusing on their discovery and fulfilment of their vocation. The result is an effective story and a picturesque presentation of one aspect of the history of the United States Southwest.

August 2008

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%T Death Comes for the Archbishop
%A Cather, Willa
%I Vintage
%D 1990 [1927]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0679728899
%P 298pp