Death Comes for the Archbishop

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“It was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history.”

In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his Vicar Joseph Vaillant travel to America to lead the new diocese of the Catholic church in the territory that the United States had acquired from the Mexican-American War. Cather narrates the Bishop’s life from his arrival in the diocese to his death.

Cather describes accurately and in detail the setting of this novel. She takes into account the effect the Gadsden Purchase would have on the missionaries, as well as the effect of Americans’ continued westward movement. She also shows the racism of the time, especially against Mexicans and Native Americans. Even the least racist characters are still condescending; Father Vaillant, the least judgmental of the missionaries, likes to think of the Mexican members of his church as confused children.

This book is written more like biography than fiction. Since the story begins with the Bishop in his early twenties and ends with his death, it lacks the usual arc of a story. In addition, most of the events in the book happened in no particular order and without relation to each other. I could not find a driving force behind the plot, which made it difficult for me to invest in the story.

Overall I thought Death Comes for the Archbishop was okay, but I do not think I fully understood the subtleties of Cather’s writing. If you read it and find it interesting, please let me know why!

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