Book #61-Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I feel as though I just lived another man’s life, truly walked in his shoes.  I actually feel I lived several lives as Willa Cather so expertly captured the essence of so many interesting characters along with the true landscape of New Mexico.  I was left feeling like one just returned from a rugged adventure, but sadly my adventure ended when I turned the final page of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Two Franciscans are directed to the new U.S. territory of New Mexico in 1851 and must travel from Ohio to their new destination where they are not necessarily greeted with enthusiasm.  Their strong beliefs deliver them and they endure many hardships, yet they persevere and encounter men, women and children in a variety of dire straits.

The Bishop, Father Jean Marie Latour is a very focused and serious Frenchman who almost doesn’t live out his destiny.  Do not, I repeat, do not skip the prologue as I must confess I did initially.  For some reason, I decided to go back and read it and I’m very glad I did.  I won’t give away the specifics, but it would be a shame to miss out on the intended lead in.  A tad standoffish at first, Latour grows on the reader as he himself grows through his struggles and observations and becomes the man we do not want to satisfy the book’s title.

The Vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant is befriended by Latour while studying as young French missionaries and their friendship is one that lasts a lifetime.  Vaillant is Latour’s physical opposite; short, homely and sickly to his  friend’s handsome and sophisticated bearing.  Vaillant is readily accepted by both the Indian and Mexican peoples allowing his bishop to move forward with spreading Catholicism among them.  His enthusiasm never wanes, even after facing injuries and illnesses and his strong beliefs impact the many lives he touches.

On a difficult journey, Latour and Vaillant encounter Magdalena, a young woman living with an abusive and murderous man.  She warns the two of her husband Buck Scale’s deadly intentions and they barely escape.  Feeling guilty at leaving the abused wife behind, Latour awakes early and finds her at his church and helps her escape her husband.  Buck is hanged when several bodies are discovered on his property.  Magdalena then works for Latour and remains a devout woman living out her life in Santa Fe.

There are so many fascinating characters, but just too many to list.  Cather has such great ability at spinning off marvelous tales and introducing the lives of intriguing characters.


“One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by a divine love.  I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you.  The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from far off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some light or shadow from beyond.  The “Last Words” of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man and woman were listened for and treasured by their neighbours and kinsfolk.  These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance and pondered by those who must one day go the same road.

When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation.  He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together,  filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand.  Since this was exactly Jacinto’s procedure, Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark or memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air.
It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it.

In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older.   His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sagebrush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “To-day, to-day,” like a child’s.

A road trip with Ms. Cather would be enthralling.  Perhaps we’d hike some trails in the Painted Desert and stumble upon some colorful characters.  I would have to refrain myself so as not to seem too eager.  Perhaps she’d share her ability at capturing the minutiae of both the human mind and the scenery of the west.  This would make a fabulous movie, so maybe I’d try to convince her to let me assist in the screen version…

My rating for Death Comes for the Archbishop  is a 10 out of 10.

To see the entire list,  visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

Please share your own reviews or  comments by using the link below.

Next up, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity…



Filed under Death Comes for the Archbishop

4 responses to “Book #61-Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

  1. Effectively said and with glorious timing

  2. This book is on my nightstand and after reading your review I am much more excited to read it. Thanks for the tip about reading the prologue, I tend to skip those generally.

    • vsudia

      This was one of those books you don’t expect to enjoy, so when it turned out to be a great read, it’s all the more rewarding.

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