Monday, January 14, 2013

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Willa Cather

Through one man's story, Willa Cather fashions a thumbprint history of Santa Fé , New Mexico and its environs.

"Death Comes to the Archbishop" takes place in the mid-19th Century, but hundreds of years'-worth of prior events are brought to life in the famed scribe's limped prose.

The short novel recounts the life of Father Jean Marie LaTour, a fictional (?) French Jesuit, woven into the fabric of New Mexican lore as he rubs soldiers with scout and Indian killer Kit Carson, jousts with the Catholic poo-bah in Taos, Father Antonio Jose Martí nez, and others peopling the time and region.

The title is a misnomer. The story is one of LaTour's entire missionary life, with memories of a youth in France thrown in for some Old World/New World contrast.

His death comes only at the end, and without much surprise.

This yarn is episodic, and moves from the mid-1800s to the later ones in fits and starts, zig-zags, backs-and-forths, but for all that, has a sense of being at least mildly woven.

It is not a classic narrative that develops and reaches a climax. It is, simply, the life of a man moving among the notable and not so notable of old New Mexico, expending energy in his particular calling, gathering experience and enduring hardship until his own ending, unhappy as it is for us all.

highwayscribery took "Death Comes to the Archbishop" on a recent trip to New Mexico and it served, eighty-something years later, as a marvelous tour guide because the state's history is hammered into (and out of) its landscape and everywhere places or features detailed in Cather's book jump out at you.

Her descriptions of the land are dead-on. Early in the story, LaTour approaches his destination. The reader is with him:

"As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-coloured hills lying at the foot of the mountains came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fé , at last! A thin wavering adobe town...green plaza...at one end of a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow fro it like a stream from a spring."

A spring that flowed into the author's heart like manna and unto the bookish and adventurous alike, for decades after.

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