Saturday, June 09, 2012

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop


Opening Passage:
One summer evening in the year 1848, three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America were dining together in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills, overlooking Rome. The villa was famous for the fine view from its terrace. The hidden garden in which the four men sat at table lay some twenty feet below the south end of this terrace, and was a mere shelf of rock, overhaning a steep declivity planted with vineyards. A flight of stone steps connected it with the promenade above. The table stood in a sanded square, among potted orange and oleander trees, shaded by spreading ilex oaks that grew out of the rocks overhead. Beyond the balustrade was the drop into the air, and far below the landscape stretched soft and undulating; there was nothing to arrest the eye until it reached Rome itself.

Summary: Death Comes for the Archbishop is the story of Father Jean Marie Latour and his closest friend, Father Joseph Vaillet, as they attempt to revive the old, large, and neglected territory of New Mexico. The story is episodic, consisting of an introductory prologue, from which the above is taken, and nine episodes in the life of Fr. Latour. "Death Comes for the Archbishop" is the name of the last of these episodes, but it makes a fitting title for the whole, as well, because that is very much what this novel is about: from the moment we come into this world death is already coming for us, but in the meantime there are many good and beautiful things to do. Both Latour and Vaillet are well-rounded characters, good men but very human, and they do, indeed, do many good and beautiful things, along with the simple people they have come to serve and guide, but it requires many sacrifices along the way. You feel by the end that you know them well.

The novel is fiction, but Latour is based loosely on the life and history of the French missionary Jean-Baptiste Lamy.

Favorite Passage:

"Well, we are getting older, Jean," he said abruptly, after a short silence.

The Bishop smiled. "Ah, yes. We are not young men any more. One of these departures will be the last."

Father Vaillant nodded. "Whenever God wills. I am ready." He rose and began to pace the floor, addressing his friend without looking at him. "But it has not been so bad, Jean? We have done the things we used to plan to do, long ago, when we are Seminarians,--at least some of them. To fulfil the dreams of one's youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that."

Recommendation: Had I realized the book was this good, I would have read it long ago; those who say it is one of the great American novels are not exaggerating. Filled with lush description and vivid characterization, it makes its mark. Very highly recommended.

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