Thursday, April 26, 2018

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Willa Cather

This book has been on my to-read list since 2002.  At least.  I'm not even kidding.  I know, because I got a little book for my college graduation from my advisor/mentor that was for keeping track of stuff like the books you want to read.  I promptly gathered up all my little scraps of paper where I'd previously kept titles of books I wanted to read and entered them very nicely into that book.  And Death Comes for the Archbishop is on the first page. 

I have no idea anymore where I first heard of this book -- possibly from that same professor.  She taught Lit and Creative Writing, so it would make sense if she recommended it to me since she knew I loved the Old West.  Anyway, I somehow ended up with the impression that this books was a lengthy allegory about Death on a Pale Horse hunting down some evil archbishop.  Or possibly about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  And so I've spent more than fifteen years wanting to read this book and thinking that's what it's about.

That is not what this book is about.

So, yeah, that was a surprise.

This book is actually about a GOOD archbishop.  And there's no personification of death, it's just that, at the end of the book, he dies.  This may sound a bit anticlimactic, and in a way, it did feel that way.  Do you ever do that?  Get ideas of what a book or movie is going to be like, and then discover they're way off base?  And then feel a little disappointed, because what you'd imagined they would be like was really cool, and maybe the real story is really cool too, but it's not what you were expecting, so you're just a teeny bit bummed that you're not going to get to read the story or watch the movie that you'd imagined this would be?

I hope you don't do that, because it's an annoying habit.  I know, because I have that habit, and it annoys me.  The same thing happened to me with Captain America: The First Avenger, which for some reason I decided was going to be a fish-out-of-water story about what happened when Cap woke up from being frozen in ice, and was mostly going to be about him adjusting to modern life.  I'm still waiting for that movie, because I really want to watch it, and it turns out that's not at all what The First Avenger is about.  I'm still disappointed in that movie because it's not what I thought it would be.  Which is ridiculous of me, but true.  So, yeah, I hope nobody else does that.

(Obligatory Bookstagram Photo by me)

Anyway.  Despite the fact that it was not about Death riding around on a Pale Horse hunting down some archbishop who needed to die, I did appreciate this book.  I read most of it on the ride down to Colonial Williamsburg and back home again on my birthday, so that was fun. 

It's based on a couple of real-life Roman Catholic priests taking over the diocese in New Mexico Territory after the United States wins that territory from Mexico in the 1800s.  One of them gets named Bishop and then Archbishop for that area, and the other one is his best friend and assistant.  The book just kind of rambles around, following them as they interact with Native Americans and Mexican-Americans and Spanish-Americans and Kit Carson.

Yeah, Kit Carson is in this.  Aging, but still awesome.  You probably don't know this, but Kit Carson has been a HUGE hero of mine since I was a little kid.  Like, six or seven.  He was an amazing dude.  So him popping up on this was a big bonus for me :-)

The book doesn't really have a plot, exactly.  It follows these guys and what they do, and takes little sidetracks to talk about local history, and it spends an incredible amount of words on describing the American Southwest.  So.  Many.  Descriptions.  Of.  Landscapes.  And don't get me wrong, they were gorgeous descriptions.  I made myself read as many of them as I could.  But I did skim a lot of them because... long descriptions bore me.  I don't care so much about what a place looks like as about what's happening there.  It's probably sad, but it's definitely true.

The biggest thing I took away from this book was how amazingly devoted the early missionaries to America were.  Staggeringly brave.  Not being Catholic myself, I haven't learned a lot about their mission work here, aside from knowing that there were a ton of missions all over the place in California and Arizona and Mexico, which I mostly know from TV shows like The Lone Ranger and Zorro because they're always getting help from the padres or helping the padres or whatever.  So that was pretty cool to learn about.

All in all, I can see why this book is famous and well-respected.  And I think I will read it again one day, now that I know what to expect from it for real.  But I also think I am just never going to be a Willa Cather fan.  I didn't really like My Antonia or O Pioneers! much at all -- they were too melancholy for my taste.  I liked Death Comes a lot better than either of those.  Enough to want to reread it at some point.  It had a stark beauty that impressed me.  But I think Cather and I just have different worldviews or something, and I never quite click with her books the way I want to, or the way other people do.  Such is life!

Particularly Good Bits:

The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had that irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand (p. 33).

Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky (p. 232).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for non-explicit discussions of non-celibate priests, torture, and violence.

This is my 17th book read and reviewed from my second Classics Club list, and this is also my 8th book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR Challenge 2018.


  1. Aw, I definitely do that--decide what a book/movie is going to be about beforehand, and then get disappointed. So I can certainly relate . . .

    I'd have to say, this book definitely cemented my love for stories with little or no plot . . . lol. That's Willa Cather for you; and I can't say WHY I love it, but I do. I just really like the way her stories (like this one) meander around and explore someone's life without moving in a straight line from point A to point B.

    And the descriptions. The descriptions. They make me so happy! Most of the time, I can't bear lengthy descriptions; but these definitely "click" with me. And I really appreciate that they're descriptions of scenery, rather than action. I HATE descriptions of action because I can never follow what's actually going on. But a static picture of the mountains at sunset? GIMME. I eat that stuff up.

    1. Jessica, I'm trying to break myself of that habit, but it's harrrrrrrrrrrd.

      I do love slice-of-life books, so I didn't exactly mind that this didn't have a plot. But I was expecting a plot, so once again, expectations met/not met flavored the experience. I know I'll re-read this, and that second time through will probably be much better.

  2. I do that all the time, so many things don't live up to my expectations, because I thought it was going to be a certain way.

    1. Skye, isn't that a horrible habit to have? I want to break it, but it's just an insidious, almost automatic thing for me as a story-teller to just start telling myself what I think the story will be. Grrrr.

  3. I taught this book for a World Lit class, and I sort of fell in love with Cather's gorgeous writing voice. I think it is a better book to read for discussion than just for pleasure reading. I tend to get more out of classics when I teach them! Heh. But I loved this one and now want to go to Santa Fe and see the church built from that golden stone. :-)

    1. Jill, I'm definitely finding, via leading read-alongs and teaching my niece Lit, that some books are a lot richer when I'm explaining them to others than the are when I just read them. Even books I already liked. But yeah, I'd like to go visit that area and see some of this for myself. (Cuz then I could just skip the endless descriptionssssssssssssssssssssss...)

  4. I do the same thing sometimes. You're definitely not the only one; we've all been there. *nods* (Oh, I just thought of a really good example! Rogue One. That movie was not what I was expecting -- nor what I want from a Star Wars movie -- so I Didn't Like It, even though I can agree that it's a good film.)

    I've only read My Antonia and Shadows on the Rock, but I really liked My Antonia, and I think I'll like O Pioneers!. My Antonia was melancholy, alright, but it stopped just short of being TOO melancholy for me personally. But I totally get just not clicking with an author even if you don't actively dislike their work. As you yourself say, "such is life!" :)

    Fun review! :)

    1. Olivia, glad I'm not the only one! Rogue One... it's hard to remember, but DKoren saw it first and I knew she was terribly, terribly anxious for me to see it, so I knew she liked it, so I went in expecting to like it, I think. But I was really angry coming out of it the first time cuz I fell in love with Cassian Andor and then he died and I was just crushed.

      Oh, I know! I went into The Last Jedi expecting to like it, and then the story was just kinda there, and the characters were just kinda there, and I was really meh by the end of it. And then the more I thought about the movie, the more flaws I saw in it, and so now I'm just irked that it's not as good as it could have been, or as I was expecting it to be.

      So that's kind of a reverse example.

      Maybe I'll age into Cather some day, or something like that. Maybe I just haven't hit the time in my life when I'll like her. I had to age into Fitzgerald and Austen.

  5. Well, I am glad you enjoyed this one. I did, too, though I did have an expectation of some major conflict occurring, as you mentioned. Bad habit, I know. So instead of just appreciating the beauty of the language, I was anticipating...

    It is better to know ahead of time when you read this that it is just a smooth, peaceful stroll through life.

    1. Ruth, yes, there wasn't exactly a major conflict. Just them against everything, I guess?

      Definitely will like this better the second time through!


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