G: Glad You Gave This Book a Chance
Last November, I went to visit my friend the Mead. That week was full of tea-drinking, book-reading, meal-sharing, and general delight. Among the books I read was Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.
For years (and despite Melpomene writing about it, apparently), my impression of the book was that the title said everything about it: that somewhere, an archbishop (who knows where) lies sick and eventually dies. I had no idea how that could constitute an entire book, and figured it was puffed full of useless detail, ecclesiastical history that meant nothing to me, and maybe the fallout from the archbishop’s death.
Then there came a point where a friend related a section of it: a corrupt priest uses his position to enslave the people living on a particular plateau, and they eventually revolted and killed him. I figured the whole book featured this corrupt priest, and the revolt was the book’s climax.
But in fact, the corrupt Friar Baltazar Montoya is only a story within the story, as related to Father Jean Marie Latour by his guide Jacinto as he journeys around New Mexico. Latour is the actual focus of the book, and as far from Montoya as can be: he is gentle but determined, content to read at home but observant of all his duties. True, death comes for him – but from a long way off, so that he spends decades in service to build up the Archdiocese before death arrives. His friendships, both with a fellow priest of France and with those in his diocese, only deepen in that time:
“Where there is great love there are always miracles,’ he said at length. ‘One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by 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 afar 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.”
Of course, not all things are so permanent. This book starts in the 1850s, and so Cather is describing a land which has since been swallowed up by people and change and industry. I am not quite sure I can see the landscapes, but at times I very nearly feel the whisper of the air on my face:
Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up 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.
The plot, per se, is somewhat loose; there is not one central event but in fact the tracing out of a man’s whole life: his journeys, his labours, his difficulties, his conversations. It is a life to make one glad.