It’s twenty years and a bit more since I was first introduced to Willa Cather’s writing, it showed me what a scandalous gap there was in my appreciation of first rate American novelists. For a course I was doing at the time I was required to read a couple of her Great Plains trilogy – O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia (pronounced to rhyme with pioneer) – and they were superb. Set in the 1850/1860 immigrant farming communities of Nebraska. Religion, hardship, hankering back to European ways. They sound dull as ditchwater, which is why they were the last ones on the course that I read, but they’re wonderfully human stories told through writing of the highest quality.
As well as the Plains, Cather wrote a lot about the deserts, mesas and inhabitants of the borderlands of New Mexico/Texas/Arizona and Mexico. Some of her short stories about Native American settlements carved into huge cliff faces or rock plateau are beautiful and simple evocations of completely different lives and have lived on in my memory for these intervening years. All of the novels and stories set in these areas have a great empathy for the Native American tribes, their dispossession and the injustices done to them. She was well ahead of the game on this subject. And to judge from the inner sleeve notes, ‘Cather lived with the editor Edith Lewis for thirty nine years in New York until her death in 1947’, she was not one to be constrained by society’s accepted norms.
Death Comes for the Archbishop comes with a spoiler in the title: the story wends its way to the advertised end, but as with any good book, it is the manner of getting there that counts. Two young French priests are sent to New Mexico to reassert the primacy of the Catholic Church in the lives of the white American settlers, who are more moved by Protestantism, the majority poor Mexican community who are Catholic, deeply, idiosyncratically devout in a manner that can see them at odds to the more contemporaneous teachings and the local Hopi and Navajo peoples, who will allow a certain Catholic gloss to be run over their own versions of worship and belief but never to supplant them.
There are hardships, travelling, strange isolated pueblos, visions, villainy, humanity as well as unspoken, platonic, love between these two men who first met at seminary. Father Levant moves away for many years to the bleaker ministry of gold rush mining shanties in the Colorado mountains, ‘living off warmed dough and liquor’ because no one has the time or inclination to farm when there is gold to be mined. Only returning when he hears of his friend’s terminal decline and then refusing to accept that the shrivelled body he sees before him as being that of the man he knew.
It is hard to do justice to the quality of the writing, and hence the storytelling: simple, humane, precise. There isn’t a wasted word and yet at only 200 pages it does not feel compressed or hurried, quite the opposite, it is expansive, generous and when needed florid.
Do yourself a favour and read some Willa Cather.