DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'Em ...take our poll!

Death Comes For The Archbishop (September 7, 2006) Book-'Em's summer selection, traditionally a "classic," was Willa Cather's Death Comes For The Archbishop. This is a sparse, elegant series of vignettes set in the unsettled New Mexico territories of the late 1800's and loosely based on the true Catholic missionaries of the day sent to establish the regions first Apostolic Vicarate.

Father Jean Marie Latour and his boyhood friend from seminary days, Father Joseph Vaillant, bring their abiding sense of faith and a gentleness to a sparsely-populated, magnificent wilderness and to the Mexican, Native American and pioneer settlers who had preceded them.

Willa Cather, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Eastern-born immigrant to the West herself, has endured as a regionalist who chronicled the isolation and loneliness of the prairies, plains and deserts. She is an acute observer and admirer of the beauty of the natural landscape and of the hardships, courage and spirit of its inhabitants. Today, we would label her an environmentalist.

As members began to read, there was some resistance to the novel's form which is not plot driven. However, our readers were soon captivated by the beautiful style and expression, the vividly drawn depictions of the land and the people, and the sense that these stories "do build to a whole" as one individual noted. The triumph and importance of spirit and spirituality over material possessions (a common Cather theme) touched us. "Faith gave them more than any material thing could," was one comment.

Our meeting format was a new one for Book-'Em. Asked to bring a passage to share, members found themselves needing to read several passages aloud to the group. Some had been chosen for the beauty of the language and some for the majestic word painting of the land. Others expressed a concept or idea the member had been taken with. We shared the impressions this selection had rendered: the unbelievable amount of time that travel took; the absence of fruits and of lettuce; the initially condescending European attitude towards these indigenous people evolving into respect and admiration.

The tone of our book club meeting frequently mirrors that of our selection. This was a peaceful, "hushed" evening of simple reactions and wonderings. Many of the group expressed gratitude "for being made to read this." Some plan to read Cather's My Antonia as a result. We would offer other groups a work by Willa Cather if reading for an appreciation of language, landscape, a time, place and a people appeals to your members.

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