Thursday, August 17, 2006

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

It's funny how busy family life can sometimes be quite complimentary to reading a book somewhat slowly, but savoring and appreciating it. This week John is in Taiwan again (on very short notice), Gus went to Hannibal, MO (Mark Twain's birthplace) with his grandparents and in the midst of this, those left at home had a wonderful, if brief, visit from the Henebrys. (I have met Ana, who is on my love2learn board, before, but we finally got to meet the whole family and we felt like old friends in no time - our common Portuguese background didn't hurt - finally someone in the Midwest who knows what Linguica is!).

Anyway, these busy times seem to be good for my enjoyment of good books as well. A little time to chat about favorites with friends over a glass of wine, a little quiet time after the kids are in bed - whatever it takes.

I seem to be reading a string of books about priests in the wilds of the Americas lately. First Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and I just finished Death Comes for the Archbishop yesterday. Now I'm already digging into John O'Brien's Saints of the American Wilderness, which is looking quite good (readable and with good scholarship from what I can see so far). I want to write more about The Power and the Glory later (so much to write about, so little time - and so much more I'd like to read), but for now I want to remember some of my impressions from Willa Cather's wonderful story about Bishop Jean Marie Latour, the first bishop of New Mexico.

Latour came to New Mexico in 1851. He arrived in his new diocese after nearly a year of travel - starting in Cincinnati, down the river to New Orleans, by boat to Galveston, across Texas to San Antonio and into New Mexico along the Rio Grande valley. At this time, a decade before the Civil War, the railroads ENDED at Cincinnati! His journey was filled with accidents and injuries and when he finally arrived in Santa Fe after all of these difficulties, the Mexican priests refused to recognize his authority!

Thus begins the long and interesting careers of Bishop Latour and his faithful friend Father Joseph Vaillant.

One thing that struck me about the book was the remarkable connection between the author and Bishop Latour in their love and appreciation of what is good and beautiful about this wild and untamed land and its native people. This gives the book a wonderful flavor and fullness that makes it unique and .... persuasive.

Here is a sample of this "flavor" that I so enjoyed...

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 sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry "Today, today," like a child's.

Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up to him for the loss of those light-hearted mornings of the desert, for that wind that made one a boy again. He had noticed that this peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by man and made to bear harvests. Parts of Texas and Kansas that he had first known as open range had since been made into rich farming districts, and the air had quite lost that lightness, that dry aromatic odour. The moisture of plowed land, the heaviness of labour and growth and grain-bearing, utterly destroyed it; one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.


mystical_rose84 said...

I read Willa Cather's 'My Antonia' soon after our move to the country and it had that beautiful, rich, earthy "flavor" ... it really helped me to appreciate the new farm life.

Karen E. said...

I *love* Willa Cather, but have never read "Death Comes..." It's now on my must-read list, though.

Love2Learn Mom said...

Yes, I can see that MK - I'll definitely have to check out My Antonia, though I can't imagine liking it more than this one (I still have more blogging to do on this particular title by the way). The connection she showed between the Bishop and the land and people made me consider what we want to aim at in doing our own small parts in reevangelizing our own culture. I think there's a useful model in there somewhere. :)

Karen! This is my first book of Cather's that I've read. Ana told me I'd also love Shadows on the Rock. She said her later books (including these two) show more of her...I can't think of the exact phrase she used... Catholic view of the world (something like that) ... than her earlier works. Any other recommendations?

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

Well, it's very nice to be finally home and then see how many people have quoted you online... :-)
Yes, the maturity of Cather's excellent writing and her newly gained respect and admiration for the Church make Death... and Shadows... (her last two books I believe) clearly superior choices.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

One more:
"LinguiƧa" is spelled with the... what do you call that in English?
The website was incorrect as well.