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.