"La Ciudad de Santa Fe." Engraving from Report of Lt. J. W. Abert of his Examination of New Mexico in the Years 1846-1847. Wikimedia Commons

Quarantine and self-isolation around the world mean that people have time to do a lot more reading over the coming months. To give our readers some ideas MercatorNet is featuring short book reviews from contributors and readers.

You might also be interested in two great reading lists from MercatorNet:

101 books Gen Ys must read before they die

101 books Millennials must read before they die

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The front cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop carries a comment by the English historical writer A.N. Wilson: “Quite simply a masterpiece.” On the back cover he adds: “This will be a book which I go on rereading.”

Both comments reflect my own experience. It is a beautiful piece of story-telling which I took up again recently as something both captivating and calming to read at the end of the day. The “calming” part comes from the “unaccented” narrative style that the author, Willa Cather, strove for – and masterfully achieved. It is not a “page-turner” in the usual sense, although if you read it a chapter at a time, as I did, it is a pleasure to anticipate.

The narrative consists of episodes from the lives of two French missionary priests in New Mexico during the second half of the 19th century; it was first published in 1927, the fruit of many years of her reading about and visiting the deserts and Indian villages of Southwestern USA. Her protagonists are based on historical figures: the first Bishop of New Mexico, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, and his assistant Father Joseph P. Machebeuf, who ultimately became the first Bishop of Colorado.

In Cather’s account they become Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant, men of very different character but sharing high ideals and a friendship going back to their seminary days in France. We see the two friends, together or apart, making heroic journeys through the vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyas, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. As they seek their scattered flock and its (sometimes derelict) priests — heirs of the first evangelisation of America some three centuries earlier — they make converts and friends, and sometimes enemies.

These days, when most of the past is seen as a regrettable mistake, if not an outright evil, it is refreshing and consoling to read a sympathetic portrayal of these missionary priests – by a writer (a woman!) who was not herself a Catholic. Cather was fascinated in particular by Bishop Lamy, whose bronze statue in Santa Fe spoke of high refinement and appealed to her predilection for French culture. She felt curious, she later wrote, about “the daily life of such a man in a crude frontier society.”

What is lacking in the historical record (and there is a lot of that) she imagines and suggests in a prose that is, in her own words, “a little stiff, a little formal”, but at the same time richly evocative of the character and culture of individuals in their environment. Critics rightly praise the power of her writing and “scene painting”.

Whether the characters in these scenes are devout Mexicans or American frontiersmen (Kit Carson is a friend) or half converted Indians who (might – can anyone really know?) still worship a snake, Cather’s focus is on the dignity (or sometimes its absence) of the person and their deeply held beliefs. Human dignity is one of the great themes of the book.

One such scene takes place on a freezing night around Christmas when Bishop Latour discovers a poor Mexican woman at the church door. Kept as virtual slave by an American family from Georgia and deprived of every comfort, most cruelly that of expressing her faith, Sada finds in the Bishop a rare sympathy and charity. With his fur coat around her shoulders, she enters the church with him and has her first sight of “the holy things of the altar” in 19 years. With exquisite sensitivity Cather describes them praying side by side in the Lady Chapel, the devotion of the poor bondwoman flowing into the priest’s heart and filling it with holy joy.

However, it is the friendships, forged across cultural divides and personality contrasts, that tie the book together and give it a great human warmth.

When the Bishop hears from Eusabio, a Navajo leader, that his son has died, he makes a 400-mile journey to visit the Indian. We see two men, both reserved by nature but with a deep regard and respect for each other, communicated largely without words. “My friend has come,” the Navajo greets the priest. “That was all, but it was everything: welcome, confidence, appreciation.”

The episode, which ends with the Indian accompanying Latour back to Santa Fe, gives Cather the opportunity to describe the Indian’s relationship with his natural environment in such memorable sentences as : “Travelling with Eusabio was like travelling with the landscape made human,” and “It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it.”

The most important of these human bonds, and in some ways the most surprising, is that between the two priests. One physically well-made, who carries his culture with him and is patient and gentle; the other always frail in body, indifferent to his surroundings (though not to good food and wine) but driven by an irrepressible zeal for souls that makes him “like everyone” at first sight and throw himself rashly into one project after another.

The Bishop, after many years of working with him, finds him full of contradictions, but “loves them all” and greatly misses him when he is absent. “Nothing one could say of Father Vaillant explained him. The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities. He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into. A Navajo Hogan, some abjectly poor little huddle of Mexican huts, or a company of Monsignori and Cardinals in Rome – it was all the same.”

Their definitive separation by Father Joseph’s call to serve in the gold camps around Denver makes a deeply moving chapter. Their deaths a few weeks apart in the final section of the book – Father Joseph goes first – bring whole populations to their knees. And while, thanks to Cather’s style, there is no drama, her narration of events – and in the case of the Archbishop, his meditations – powerfully stir the emotions. For my part, these were admiration and gratitude for two men who lived for others.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet