Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What I'm Reading: Death Comes For the Archbishop

This is a selection from the TIME Top 100 list I intentionally put off. I read Willa Cather's O Pioneers! in high school, begrudgingly. I thought the prose dull and sparse, the story needlessly depressing. A title like Death Comes For the Archbishop doesn't do much to promise anything better.

It's hard to tell, then, if my tastes have changed dramatically, or if Death... is that much different. The writing is simple, still, but not dull. Death... comes much later in life than O Pioneers! so it might well be the polished work of a more experienced writer. According to Wikipedia, by the time Death..was published (1927) Cather was beginning to see the fall of her literary star. By the 1930s her propensity for historical settings branded her, in some eyes, a "romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present"; by that point the trend in writing and the arts at large was political and social activism (eg The Grapes of Wrath).

Despite being written 85 years ago and being historical fiction even then, Death... still manages to be timeless in a way similar to The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Perhaps there's just something eternal and ageless about the desert of the American southwest where Death... is set. Father Latour, sent from the comforts of his Ohio parish to the relatively unknown wilds of New Mexico in the 1850s, is at once sympathetic to the modern reader, but also totally believable as a Catholic priest from 150 years prior. Death... chronicles his life in his new foreign diocese: the people he meets, encounters he has, challenges he faces.  It's a novel not only about Father Latour, but the land and its native people as well.

I'm not sure I'll add this one to my permanent library, but I am certainly enjoying it.

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