Over a full year after reading (and loving) My Ántonia, I have finally picked up another book by Willa Cather. Set in 1851 primarily in New Mexico, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a story of religion, a clash of cultures, the deceiving concept of the American identity, and living in the present by embracing the past. When Father Jean Marie Latour leaves Europe to become the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico, he hardly expects to be swept up in the tangled knot of history between the whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans. As he continues to serve his religious duties in the following decades we see him become more and more a part of the red hills surrounding what is to ultimately be his final resting place.
For me, the experience of reading Cather novel is like coming home after months of being away: it’s familiar, refreshing, comforting, and sweetly nostalgic. In particular, I greatly enjoyed the following aspects:
+ The focus on identity. The idea of one’s cultural, national, and personal identity seems to be an important common thread running between many of Cather’s works. Here Cather explores the tension between whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans during this time period. She plays with the question of whether or not land defines one’s identity, simultaneously linking back to the landscape’s past and rejecting the notion that living on what is considered to be “American” soil automatically makes one an “American.”
+ An emphasis on living through the past. Cather showcases and embraces the rich history of New Mexico by presenting these people as developed characters rather than one-dimensional representations. In this way she subverts white superiority, acknowledging the political and social power they had at this time while emphasizing the strength, intelligence, and humanity of the Mexicans and Native Americans. Father Latour embraces these people as the complex individuals that they are. At one point, Cather states:
“Observing them thus in repose, in the act of reflection, Father Latour was thinking how each of these men not only had a story, but seemed to have become his story.”
Through Father Latour’s eyes Cather shows us the importance and value of remembering the past.
+ The use of Spanish. As someone currently studying Spanish in college, I was intrigued by the way Cather incorporates another language into this novel. Did Cather speak Spanish? Why did she decide to use it in the places that she did? This is likely something that I’ll research further in the future because I think it’s fascinating to learn about.
+ The portrayal of the landscape. Cather describes the landscape of New Mexico in a way that seems to take on the culture of the people living there. For instance, when she first describes the red hills of New Mexico, she writes:
“They were so exactly like one another that he seemed to be wandering in some geometrical nightmare; flattened cones, they were, more the shape of Mexican ovens than haycocks– yes, exactly the shape of Mexican ovens, red as brick-dust, and naked of vegetation except for small juniper trees. And the junipers, too, were the shape of Mexican ovens.”
Is this a suggestion that whites viewed Mexicans as a sort of homogeneous group of people, similar to how Father Latour viewed the red hills as identical copies of one another? Perhaps. It could also be a way for Cather to demonstrate how the landscape can represent and reflect culture, like the way the hills apparently looked similar to Mexican ovens. (This is why Cather’s writing is SO INTERESTING.) Regardless, I want to emphasize that I believe Cather was attempting to expose the unjust treatment and dehumanization of these people, not promote, support, or justify it in any way.
+ The incredible writing. I couldn’t write a review of this book without praising Cather’s remarkable way with words. I’m a big believer in writing in my books and I cannot even begin to tell you how many passages I underlined, starred, and made notes next to throughout this novel. For now, I’ll simply share with you one of my favorite quotes:
“If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation.”
Overall, reading Death Comes for the Archbishop has reaffirmed Cather as one of my favorite authors. Was this as good as My Ántonia? Yes and no. More importantly, it has inspired me to pick up even more of Cather’s work. Certainly this must be a sure sign of a successful novel!
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Definitely!! Especially if they have an interest in American history, the Spanish language, or Mexican or Native American culture during this time period.
What are your thoughts on this novel? Would you recommend any of Willa Cather’s other works? Let me know in the comments section below!