Several years ago I read A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. I found the book engaging and entertaining, albeit not an instant classic in my mind. I recognized the writing as being better than most and remembered the name Willa Cather for future reference. Only a few months ago some fellow Church members were giving away a box full of books, which I, of course, perused with delight. Among the collection of books I found Thomas L. Friedman's excellent From Beirut to Jerusalem, which I read last year, and Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. Remembering my positive experience with A Lost Lady I grabbed the book for future reading.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a truly lovely book. Cather's prose is simple but very effective and evocative. I felt the landscapes of Old and New Mexico; I could almost see it. (Having served a full time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Las Vegas, Nevada helped with the visualization quite a bit). Cather's understated protagonist, Father Latour, is a noble and good soul, a character worth spending time with. His brother in the gospel, Joseph Valliant, is a layered, interesting, and delightful character. Death Comes for the Archbishop offers refreshing observations regarding religion, traditions, faith, devotion, and the human character and condition. The book's somewhat bleak title belies its ability to uplift and edify the reader, to say nothing of educate.
In addition to all of this I must admit my personal connection to a book like Death Comes for the Archbishop. Although my experience serving as a missionary does not mirror in many ways the experience of the fictional characters of Father Latour and Vicar Valliant, I felt a kinship and camaraderie with them I haven't felt reading any other fictional work. I know something of what it means to be a missionary, and it can be brutal as well as beautiful. I've experienced my own story, my Dustland Fairytale as I've called it (thanks to The Killers), and Cather's book did more in helping me remember my mission than most any other thing in recent memory. I hold Death Comes for the Archbishop very dear to my heart because of this, in addition to it being a wonderfully written book.
Below are some notable passages from the book that struck me with singular feelings:
- "...it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history."
- "Doctrine is well enough for the wise...but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love."
- "Man was lost and saved in a garden."
I have bemoaned the state of fiction so many times in the past. I still maintain its power and value and a book like Death Comes for the Archbishop is the reason fiction exists. What it can get the reader to feel and experience is beyond what non-fiction can do, no matter how good it is. Death Comes for the Archbishop has made Willa Cather a future book-fellow of mine for many years to come.
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