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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa…

Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

by Willa Cather

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3,323731,628 (4.03)1 / 485
  1. 00
    The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (noveltea)
  2. 01
    Lamy of Santa Fe by Paul Horgan (inge87)
    inge87: Biography of the real-life Jean Marie Latour — Archbishop Lamy

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English (72)  Spanish (1)  All languages (73)
Showing 1-5 of 72 (next | show all)
3.5/5Once before he had been carried out of the body thus to a place far away. He had turned a corner and come upon an old woman with a basket of yellow flowers; sprays of yellow sending out a honey-sweet perfume. Mimosa - but before he could think of the name he was overcome by a feeling of place, was dropped, cassock and all, into a garden in the south of France where he had been sent one winter in his childhood...It's rare these days in reading that I'll come across a childhood thought or form, especially during my customary long bouts of first reads rarely broken by a revisit. These rediscoveries are not even guaranteed to be pleasant, for there is so much more to be aware of these days in terms of the lies youth is bred upon and only shamefully realized much later in time. So it was a marvel, then, that I found this pulsepoint of evocation in not one, but two pleasant forms, first in the synopsis and second in the cover illustration of my eventually happened upon edition. I am now determined to keep the name Sally Mara Sturman in mind for reasons of artistic acquisition, as well as a far off dream of a book of my own that needs favorable presenting to the world.

The childhood experience is Brian Jacques' [b:Redwall|7996|Redwall (Redwall, #1)|Brian Jacques|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327877368s/7996.jpg|486980] series, and the key binding factor is the wealth of sense that strongly flows without ever overwhelming. There are other, stronger similarities, the most obvious being the religious setting of Redwall Abbey and its far more orthodox counterpart the Catholic Church, but that is only surface tension. I may have missed whatever theological imports Jacques slipped in with his mouse friars and novices, but it was far from the weighty bearing Catholicism had on every aspect of far more adult book. What was planted then and sprouted now is my love for rich simplicity, lofty in its appreciation of landscape imagery and earthily enthusiastic over the descriptions of food both gourmet and plucked.

I would like to leave that precious feeling at that, but I must say that my issues with the book can be summed up with this:"No matter, Father. I see your redskins through Fenimore Cooper, and I like them so.Cather followed through with this in lavishing all of her attention on her Bishops and Priests and cutting every other category of character short, whether Mexican or Native American or female. The two main characters themselves may have been well intentioned and marvelously appreciative of their aesthetic surroundings, but there was far too much romanticization of one culture imposing itself on all the other for my tastes, whether it was the US clearing out land of its original inhabitants or missionaries seeing the unconverted as 'childish' and 'out of date' and converting them accordingly. I'm especially amazed at how unfavorably Cather treated her female characters; I don't expect authors to be especially able at crafting fictional personas based on amount of shared characteristics, but I've read male authors who were less misogynistic in their treatment.

Despite that, I truly did enjoy the book, and want to accord it a rating that matches that enjoyment. So, 4.5 stars for the pleasure, minus 1.5 stars for the contentious issues, and another half star awarded for the absolute beauty of the front cover....the violet that is full of rose colour and is yet not lavender; the blue that becomes almost pink and then retreats again into sea-dark purple... ( )
3 vote Korrick | Mar 30, 2014 |
Death does indeed come for the archbishop, but not until the priest who hails from the French countryside manages to fulfill his mission to establish the Catholic Church in the newly acquired New Mexico Territory. And Willa Cather fulfills her mission to evoke the sights and sounds of this strange landscape.

Father Latour does not have an easy time establishing his authority in Santa Fé. He finds himself vehemently opposed by the Mexican Catholics who are used to a less pious and more raucous brand of Christianity. Resistant, too, are the Indian tribes who are the original settlers of the land. Still, their aloof respect for Latour and his fellow priest, Father Joseph, is a welcome improvement over the massacres inflicted upon missionaries in the early days of American settlement. He even manages to fulfill his dream of building a grand cathedral in the city where he would live out the final forty-some years of his life.

Cather tells her story more as a series of loosely linked vignettes rather than a solid narrative. Reading it was like watching dancers under a strobe light; each flash catches the bodies in a different position but each seemingly isolated movement is compiled into a smoothly flowing whole. I enjoyed the effect, but readers more attuned to linear storytelling might chafe at the treatment.

I’ve never experienced the New Mexico landscape in person (yet!), but Cather manages to convey the cascade of colors and shapes that fill the horizon. I found myself repeatedly making notes of page numbers where particularly beautiful descriptions were found. I’ll confine myself to just one, from late in the novel:

The ride back to Santa Fé was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

"Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky." That sentence alone would have earned Cather the 4½ stars, if not for the fact that there are others nearly as wonderful on every other page. ( )
1 vote rosalita | Feb 2, 2014 |
Let me start off by saying that this is a good book, probably a very good book. But it doesn't speak to me as personally as it clearly speaks to others. There are parts of it that I love and parts of it that I definitely do not love. Overall, I'm glad I've read it but having read both this and My Antonia in the last few months I have come to the conclusion that Willa Cather will never be one of my favourite writers, as she is for many people.

Based on the true story of Archbishop Lamy, the first Archbishop of New Mexico, Death Comes to the Archbishop tells the story of Father Jean Marie Latour, from his appointment in 1850 as Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico, a time when that territory was newly annexed to the United States, to his death as the retired Archbishop many years later. With no overriding plot to speak of the book consists of a series of vignettes of Father Latour's life and more that anything presents a moving picture of his friendship with his fellow Frenchman who has accompanied him throughout his missionary work, Father Joseph Vaillant.

The strength of this book for me lies in the way that Cather paints the landscape of New Mexico. Her descriptions are at times extremely evocative and almost poetic:
From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left - piles of architecture that were like mountains.The description of the landscape was a strength in My Antonia too, but I found that landscape described in that book hostile, a landscape that I could not imagine growing to love. The landscapes described in [Death comes for the Archbishop] has the opposite effect: I can begin to understand the love that the Archbishop comes to feel for his adopted country. And here the isolated one-family homesteads of the prairie are replaced by Indian pueblos, small Spanish villages and towns where the churches are old enough to have fallen into ruin. It's a country with a patchwork history which I found fascinating.

But holding back my overall rating of the book is Cather's portrayal of her characters. In dealing with her minor characters, at times it seemed that rather than dealing with individuals she was presenting them as archetypal examples of 'the Mexican peasant', ' the Pueblo Indian' and so on. And while at times she gives glimpses into the motivations of Father Latour and his affection for Father Vaillant, I found the narrative was often more flatly descriptive of events with little insight into the feelings of either character. So neither of the main characters really came alive for me in the way that the landscape did. ( )
  SandDune | Jan 31, 2014 |
"The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, - and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!"

I had not read Cather before, and I must say that this was a lovely introduction to her. The writing is descriptive and beautiful, the characters fully fleshed, and the pacing slow and languid, but not boring. It reads almost like a collection of linked stories - brief dips in and out of the life of two priests in the newly acquired territory of New Mexico. Cather's writing brings the setting to life, making it a main character in the book.

Bishop Jean Latour and his vicar, Joseph Vaillant have been friends for years, beginning in France where they took their vows and continuing into the New World where they serve first in Ohio before being sent to New Mexico. This is an historic time for New Mexico, and Latour has been chosen to take charge of the diocese in this harsh terrain. He must battle more than the landscape in his travels - just getting there is not easy, taking him almost a year, but when he finally arrives, the priests already there refuse to recognize his authority. Once he is established, he still has his hands full as he must deal with priests who place greed above goodwill, serving themselves above others and refusing to follow the tenets of the faith. And he must bridge the gap between cultures as this new territory holds Mexicans, white settlers, and different Native American tribes. Luckily, he has brought along Vaillant as his vicar, and Vaillant is like a mirror image of Latour - they both have good hearts and a love for serving God, but they bring different gifts to the table. Vaillant is outgoing and easy to know where Latour is is quieter and more reserved. Together they make a formidable team.

Cather's writing spoke to me. She made the landscape a living, breathing entity, and made quiet observations that held truth. I liked how she gave us something to think about when reflecting on the fact that the Native Americans became a part of their landscape, working tirelessly not to mark it or change it in any permanent way, while the settlers from other cultures worked to make the landscape a part of them, purposefully setting out to change or adapt it and to leave a permanent mark of themselves upon it. As I was reading I kept thinking what a good job Cather was doing, how true to life her story felt - there is a reason for that. Cather based her story on the real life of French missionary Jean-Baptiste Lamy. And the cathedral that Latour built? Yep. It's real - it's the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. ( )
1 vote Crazymamie | Jan 26, 2014 |
While presented as fiction, this is actually the story of Jean-Baptiste Lamy (here named Jean Marie Latour), a missionary from France who was sent first to Cincinnati and then to Santa Fe, New Mexico as bishop of the new diocese. Cather is wonderful in her descriptions of the land and the hardships of the indigenous people and the travelers, but her work here is too episodic and hagiographic for my taste.

Curiously, many of the significant events in Bishop Latour's life happen off-stage: his decision to become a missionary, his appointment as Bishop, the death of his life-long friend and vicar in Colorado (he does attend the funeral). The Navaho struggle to keep their land is discussed after the fact at the end of the book, although it would have been hugely important at the time. More time is spent on his decision to build a cathedral out of a particular stone he found in the area, and his decision to send for a French architect who could build it in the Romanesque style.

3 1/2 stars mainly for the descriptive power of the writing, and the mention, toward the end of the story, of the Navaho and their culture, which reminded me of Tony Hillerman's books set in the same area. ( )
1 vote ffortsa | Jan 12, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 72 (next | show all)
Each event in this book is concrete, yet symbolic, and opens into living myth. The reader is invited to contemplate the question: What is a life well lived? This question is asked in a story so fine it brings the old words “wisdom” and “beauty” to life again.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Byatt, A. S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
But in reality the Bishop was not there at all [on his sickbed, in his wandering imagination]; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge.
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Book description
One summer evening in the year of 1848 three Cardinals and a missionary, dining in a villa near Rome, decide the fate of a simple parish priest, the Frenchman Jean Marie Latour. He is to go to New Mexico to win for Catholicism the South-West of America, a country where the Faith has slumbered for centuries. There, together with his old friend Father Vaillant, Latour makes his home. To the carnelian hills and ochre-yellow deserts of this almost pagan land he brings the refined traditions of French culture and Christian belief. Slowly, gently he reforms and revivifies, after forty years of love and service achieving a final reconciliation between his faith and the sensual peasant people of New Mexico: a harmony embodied in the realisation of his most cherished dream - a Romanesque cathedral, carved from the Mexican rock, gold as sunlight.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679728899, Paperback)

Willa Cather's best known novel; a narrative that recounts a life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:34 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

The story of a French priest who goes to New Mexico and with another priest win the southwest for the Catholic Church. After forty years, he dies--the archbishop of Santa Fe.

» see all 5 descriptions

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