Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I’ve really enjoyed all of the books by Willa Cather which I’ve already read so I’m going to work my way through the rest of them.

I was quite disappointed that she wrote a book about the Roman Catholic church because as I was brought up in the west of Scotland I’ve found that avoiding religion is the best policy. Anyway, I ‘girded my loins’ and remembering that I had enjoyed Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, I took a big breath and plunged into it.

As ever it’s Cather’s descriptions that I love, she gives her novels a wonderful sense of place and makes it really easy for you to live there in your imagination, even if the landscape which is written about is an entirely alien one to you.

Looking at the story from a non Catholic viewpoint: This is about Roman Catholicism taking over from the original religion and traditions of the people of New Mexico. Two priests Father Vaillant and Bishop Latour are given the task of making the RC church more powerful. They are welcomed by the natives who are generous to a fault and the two priests sponge off them, taking everything that is offered to them – and more. The one mountain in the area which is a beautiful cream coloured rock is plundered and quarried to build a huge stone cathedral in a sparsely populated area. It’s Bishop Latour’s vanity project.

From the Roman Catholic point of view: This is the story of the church spreading its influence into New Mexico and helping the inhabitants have a better way of life through Catholic worship.

Having been brought up a Presbyterian and married to an Episcopalian (which Willa Cather converted to), I decided that atheism was the one for me and the only ‘religion’ that interests me is Celtic mythology because I like the importance that it places on nature and plants. But the Christians nicked all of the Celtic/Pagan festivals. The December holiday should be the celebration of the winter solstice, especially as Christ was apparently born sometime in September.

Anyway, back to the book, I didn’t like this one as much as My Antonia as the subject and the setting didn’t appeal to me as much. I was amazed to read that this book had been banned at various times, according to the Wikipedia article.

4 thoughts on “Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

  1. My real-life book group is reading this next spring. Like yourself, I’m not as interested in the religious/spiritual aspects of this book, but I’ve loved Willa Cather so far, so I’m going to give it a shot. I’ve actually visited New Mexico and it was really beautiful, so I hope the descriptions will appeal to me as much as her Nebraska stories.

    • Karen,
      I’m definitely glad that I read it, I think you probably will enjoy it. It just seemed a weird subject to write about. I had been thinking that New Mexico would be quite near you. Well, close in American terms but probably hundreds of miles away in reality. I imagined it to be like the countryside that you see in some Westerns. I’m looking forward to reading O Pioneers.

      • I suppose it’s relatively close — in Texas nothing is close! (It’s about 800 miles wide). I think it’s about 8 hours driving to the New Mexico border from San Antonio, which I guess is not that bad. I’m not sure exactly in the New Mexico the book is set. Maybe that’s more desert-like, which is not what we have in San Antonio. It’s mostly green but nothing as lush and beautiful of the photos I’ve seen of Great Britain. There’s a lot of scrubby looking trees and we do have cactus, and lots of pasture. At least in south Texas.

        • Karen
          It’s quite mind-boggling to me as my beloved west coast is only 70 miles away from the east coast. It’s a 90 minute drive away but everything is completely different, including the people. 800 miles is the most we’ve ever driven and we put that journey off for years – at last we drove from Fife to Cornwall where it was lovely but it rained a lot, the downside to the lushness. Maybe you’ll see GB for yourself some day.
          I love cactus plants and grow them but my oldest one died last winter. It was usually fine in the greenhouse but last year was just too long and cold, sad because it was 40 years old and I bought it when I was 10. I’d love to see them growing naturally but hate the thought of the journey – and the heat.

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