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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927) 212 p.

Death Comes for the Archbishop. That’s a heavy title: it sounds like an ominous proclamation, something whispered by monks in the hallways of a remote monastery, or the last sentence in the scrolling text at the beginning of a Gothic fantasy movie. In my mind it summons up the image of a skeletal spectre stalking through the night, coming to reap a soul. The Archbishop has sinned, yea, and he shall face the ultimate reckoning. But Death Comes for the Archbishop is actually nothing like that at all – it’s a wonderful, beautiful, heart-warming novel. Death does indeed come for Father Jean Marie Latour, Willa Cather’s fictionalised version of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. But death comes for us all, in time. We can only hope that our lives have been worth the living.

Father Latour’s certainly is. In 1851 he is a humble young priest in Ohio, surprised to learn that he has been reassigned as bishop for a fledgling diocese in the newly-acquired American territory of New Mexico; or, as a priest in Italy puts it, a land of “countless canyons and arroyos,” a harsh country which will “drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain.” But Father Latour is a devout Catholic and a faithful servant of the Church, and he loyally sets forth into this strange new land which will become his home for the rest of his life.

Cather was not a Catholic, and was largely renowned as a writer of stories set in the American West rather than anything overtly religious. Death Comes for the Archbishop is not so much a Catholic novel – although it certainly touches on matters of faith and God – as it is a story about the intersection of different cultures, of Native Americans and European Americans and Mexicans mixing together on the frontier of a new society, of the relationships and friendships formed over the course of one man’s long life. There is no plot, no structure; Death Comes for the Archbishop is a series of vignettes and notable experiences over the course of many years, just as any life is. When Father Latour dies at the conclusion of the novel, as indeed he must, it’s without any sense of loss or sadness. We only hope that we, too, might life a life as rich and satisfying as his.

Cather’s prose is excellent. It’s too early for me to tell whether it’s the kind that will grow stronger in my mind as time goes by, or whether her writing is the sort that breathes joy and colour in its own moment, like a lived experience, and then fades into memory. All I know is that as I read it, I had no doubt I was witnessing a great artist in action. Death Comes for the Archbishop is small and simple, yet refined and beautiful – like a poem or a tapestry or a stained glass window. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

In those days, even in European countries, death had a solemn social importance. It was not regarded as a moment when certain bodily organs ceased to function, but as a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to an unimaginable scene. 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 great 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 or 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.

– From “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather

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August 2015