Death Comes for the Archbishop: A Review

Just for the fun of it, how about a quick switch to reading something that isn’t sci-fi or fantasy, and hasn’t been published recently?

I joined a local reading group at my parish, part of something called The Well-Read Mom, and the first book on the list was Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. I’d never read it before, although I did have to read My Antonia by the same author in college.

So, as a nice change of pace, here’s a short analysis and review of a classic: Death Comes to the Archbishop.

The story isn’t very long, and isn’t a particularly difficult read (unlike, for example, reading The Lord of the Rings, which takes all available brain power to absorb), but it took me a few tries to really get into it. I stopped and started several times, and then finally took it to work with me on a slow day.

It reminded me a lot of the very beginning of Les Miserables. I did my thesis on the book (not the musical), and I remember the very long section about the Bishop at the beginning. He’s the first character you meet, long before Jean Valjean comes into view, and a lot of the beginning chapters are just about the Bishop. It’s a lot of anecdotes strung together that allow you to see what the man’s character is like.

Death Comes for the Archbishop reads a lot like that. It’s rather disjointed, with some of the events in the new Bishop of Sante Fe’s experience told out of order, but the point is to show you not only what life was like in New Mexico in 1840, but also what Bishop Latour was like.

The character is based on the real-life Jean-Baptiste Lamy, first Archbishop of Santa Fe, and includes appearances by a few other historical figures, such as Kit Larson and Manuel Chavez.

About my only complaint about the historical content is the author’s repeated reference to the “conquest of New Mexico” by the US after the Mexican-American War.

As a Texan, that bothers me. Most of the state currently known as New Mexico was part of the Republic of Texas, which declared independence from Mexico on March 6, 1836, and was admitted to the Union in 1846, which was when it was broken up into more than one state. As far as I can tell from a current map of the USA, both Santa Fe and Albuquerque were inside the area belonging to Texas, not the part that was still a Mexican territory.

The remainder of New Mexico was turned over to the US with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 (which was after the Mexican-American War), and a small bit of the southern portion of the state was added with the Gadsden Purchase in 1854.

So, saying that the Americans “conquered” New Mexico is a bit of an over-simplification, whether the people who lived there thought like that or not. Occasionally, the descriptions in the story are much more anti-American than racist towards either Mexicans or Native Americans (especially in the anecdote told about “old Sada,” the “slave” of the white Protestants from Georgia, who was forbidden to go to Mass by her evil “masters” who hated the Catholics). I’d much prefer that stories always tell the truth about both sides, but fortunately for my Texan Rage, the attitude of the Bishop in the story is much more of an “in sorrow not in anger,” rather than taking one side or another, which is good.

That one complaint of mine, however, doesn’t negate the value of the rest of the story.

It’s a story that I can appreciate more than I can enjoy. It isn’t something I would read again, just because it isn’t to my taste. Willa Cather is often credited with depicting the southwest United States in a very compelling and beautiful way, and I can appreciate that. Her descriptions of the bishop’s journey through New Mexico are very detailed, sometimes more so than is really needed.

The little anecdotes about the bishop are sometimes on the boring side, but with enough occasional humor to help them along. This is very much a “slice of life” story, rather one that is primarily driven by a plot. If someone were to write a story about the first Bishop of Santa Fe today, there would probably have to be stories about battling the wilderness, being chased down by either Indians or US Cavalry (or both), something about a disease sweeping through the area with at least one tragic death, not to mention a tragic love-story side plot, and at least one murder.

You get some of those here, but with the Bishop as an observer, not a participant. His days are spent tending to his flock, addressing their needs, occasionally slapping down a few heretics and renegade priests, tending his garden, and building a cathedral.

But the stories of New Mexico are often interrupted by flashbacks, almost as if Willa Cather realized that her story needed a few more exciting moments, and went back and stuck them in. They’re not always flashbacks by the Bishop: sometimes they’re from his assistant, Father Joseph Valliant, regarding his life in France previous to his assignment as a missionary. Sometimes they’re about unrelated characters that are only seen in the flashback, but that describes some important event in the local residents (like the death of a tyrannical priest in one Native American village).

There’s an interesting point closer to the end of the book that’s a bit of a “dark night of the soul” for the bishop, and it’s really there that Willa Cather manages to show her talent as a writer. Her descriptions of the landscapes of New Mexico are nice and all, but this bit of character development is far superior.

When death actually does come for the Archbishop at the end of the book, I was almost relieved. The book was so disjointed and overly-descriptive that I was glad to be at the end of it.

The worst part is, even at the very end of the book, when you’re trying to pay attention to the Archbishop and his feelings or recollections at his own death, the disjointedness continues: one minute, you’re reading about his routine now that he’s old and has chosen to die in Santa Fe, where he feels at home; the next, you’re hearing a story about Saint Junipera Serra. It’s a nice story, but frankly, Sain Junipera Serra is completely irrelevant to the story about the Archbishop. It’s also distracting now that you’re at the end of the book, and you’re reading about what the author told you the book was about: death coming for the Archbishop.

Then, Willa Cather really shoots herself in the foot. Right there, four pages before the end of the book, out comes the anti-American, anti-white garbage again. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for very serious criticism of the way the Americans treated the Navajo Indians, the Apaches, the Comanches, and so on. It sucked, probably rising to the level of “war crimes” on some occasions. But do I really need to hear about it as the Archbishop is dying? If this tale of the Navajo being driven from their home had been told in order, it probably would have worked: the previously mentioned “in sorrow not in anger” attitude, or the actions of a decent Catholic man and a bishop trying to stop the brutality by some men against others, no matter what race or nationality they were. But as the man is dying, he’s remembering how his now-deceased friend, Kit Carson, helped to brutally exile the Navajo from their homeland, and it’s enough to throw you out of the story completely, igniting an anger that is misplaced at that point in the story. Be angry with that situation when it happened, of course. Tell how the Bishop tried to stop it, or how he prayed for the sinners or comforted the afflicted. That’s a great example of virtue and a good part of the story. But to tell it as a flashback, while the man is on his deathbed? No way.

It’s a sudden switch from a deathbed story of a great man, to a soap box from someone with a serious ax to grind. Those last four pages basically tanked the entire book.

Overall, I’d give this one two out of five stars. Worth reading once, but that’s all.

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