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Thursday, May 31, 2007


There’s magic in a great book. It draws response whenever the covers are opened to reveal the secrets of existence. So it is with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book I read so long ago that I remembered nothing about it other than the fact that I loved it. There’s nothing like revisiting an old love.

Based on the life of Archbishop Lamy of New Mexico, Cather uses her distinctive descriptive talents to paint of landscape of change. After years of miscreant and unsupervised priests redefining Catholicism, Bishop Latour and his Vicar, Vaillant arrive to re-introduce the beauty and order of the church. The seemingly plotless novel is a series of episodes displaying Latour’s compassion, understanding and respect for the Mexicans’ and Indians’ cultures and beliefs. Latour’s firm gentleness allows him to maneuver the seas of differences so he can reach out to build a strong church in the vastness of the American Southwest. All the while he grows in understanding of his flock and of himself.

Cather’s craftsmanship is evident in the two main characters, friends since boyhood but polar opposites in temperament and method. Latour, the handsome, quiet, academic and Vaillant, the vibrant, emotional mover and shaker, bring to each other the right balance to spread their message. Through their work, each man, in his own way, finds the purpose of his life and has his faith reaffirmed time and again.

Don’t think that this is a religious book. If it were, its appeal would be limited to a relatively small audience. This is a novel for everyone. It is simple and full of stories of the times and places. Without minimizing treatment by the church or by the Americans of the indigenous peoples of the region, Cather leaves an indelible and universal image.

In part because it is a travel book, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a nice travel companion.

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