216. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage, 1927; 297) by Willa Cather is about a Bishop Jean Latour and his friend Vicar Joseph Vaillant as they set out from Sandusky France to proselytise the Latinos and Indians of New Mexico and its environs when it was annexed by the Union. The story is about what they went through and how they survived in a place they knew next to nothing about. The characters of both friends complement each other: whereas the bishop was the intellectual, the vicar was the bold one. 

The Bishop and the Vicar would come into several obstacles; some of which include priests whose service to God is titular and ritualistic. For there is nothing about them that is priestly, with beahviours incomparable in its nefariousness to the natives they are working to convert. They were swindlers, covetous, philanderers, hoarders, and bacchanal. These would offer the greatest resistance to their work but with the intelligence and bravery they would sail through, converting the people one at a time with the lives they live and with tact. They would build their cathedrals and would be recognised in their adopted environment.

Willa's book shares some semblance with Andre Brink's Praying Mantis. The isolation, the desolation and the attachment priests have to their works that makes Brink's book seem as if it is a pastiche of Willa's. However, the isolation and desolation is thicker, deeper and more noxious in Brink's. Willa's priests were at least cared-for by the people. They were remembered in Rome and even paid homage to the Pope. Something Cupido Cockroach never had, not even from his own people in South Africa.

This is an interesting book, simply written, about the lives of people at such a time. The portrayal of the loneliness of the place, the desert and rocks, but also the serenity and the peoples' closeness to nature - that idyllic lifestyle - is beautiful. Regardless, nothing significant happened in this book apart from the lives the two priests saved from destruction, not spiritual but physical. They lived fully, they gave up everything, but beyond that nothing extraordinary happened. On the other hand, if you love such graphic depiction of landscapes, of mountains and rocks, of nature, you will enjoy this book.


  1. The comparison with Andre Brink is really interesting.

    I have never read him. Come to think of it, I have barely read Cather.

  2. Yes, interestign comparison. Well done with the review.


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