Death Comes for the Archbishop

Around 1850, following the New Mexico territory’s annexation to the United States, the Vatican appoints Father Jean Marie Latour, a French Jesuit missionary priest previously serving in Ohio, as the first bishop of this region. He sets out for Santa Fe with Father Joseph Vaillant, a personal friend for many years.

The almost plotless historical novel Death Comes for the Archbishop follows the two priests for almost forty years. But the real story is the story of the peoples of New Mexico. Now American by law, they are actually Mexican and Indian by custom and belief.

Amidst a collection of stories along the way, little vignettes inserted like legends, it was fitting to find the amazing narrative of the appearance of Virgin of Guadalupe, still today so instrumental to Catholics of the area.

Another major character, maybe the most important one, is the landscape, or I should say, the “skyscape”, which really makes you feel the place.

Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Apart from the sky, there’s mostly nothing but the silent red desert, both harsh and beautiful, a perfect fit for Latour’s loneliness.
I liked his personality, his gentleness and how he tried to work with all, the people he gets to know, as well as the rebellious priests; and his perseverance, with so many days spent on horse or mule back to visit his territory.

Cather based her novel on the Life of the Right Reverend Joseph Priest Machebeuf, D.D., Pioneer Priest of Ohio, of Colorado, and Utah, and First Bishop of Denver, published in 1908, and on Father Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of Santa Fe.

Just as in My Ántonia, what I really enjoy in Cather’s writing is not so much the story nor the characters, but the place she gives to nature, to the land, to the big spaces, and to the sky. It’s poetry in prose. You really feel part of the landscape.
I think this tells the impact the South West must have made on her when she discovered it for the first time, arriving from New York! It actually makes me want to read her biography. Which one would you recommend?

VERDICT: Almost plotless historical novel, where the land and the sky occupy a place of honor. A landscape to lose oneself in, under the very evocative prose of Willa Cather.

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Willa Cather
First published in 1927
Pages: 215
Historical Fiction


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Which one of your favorite book by Willa Cather?
And which biography of Willa Cather would you recommend?

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