An agent recently turned down my manuscript as she wasn’t a fan of the novel in stories. My manuscript is not really a novel in stories, but a collection of long stories and novellas that are linked through place, à la Olive Kitteridge. And frankly, I am not really a fan of the novel in stories, nor do I read so many story collections either; I prefer through-composed novels and have always wanted to be a novelist. However, her comment really got me thinking about this form. I recently read Willa Cather’s brilliant Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book I have always wanted to read as Cather is one of my favorite authors. I also really happened to like Olive Kitteridge, which to me created its own unique world, à la Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, a close-knit community with quirky characters and their own histories. So is the novel in stories worth a second look?
I had expected Death Comes for the Archbishop to be a true novel, as that is what it is generally billed as. Cather is renowned as a novelist, though she has written quite a few stories such as the famous “Paul’s Case” that many youngsters read in high school. And indeed, there are some features of the book that are indicative of it being a novel: we can see the character arcs, especially that of Father Jean Marie Latour, whose lifespan is covered through the book up until his death. There is also skillfully placed back story about Latour’s life, and also the history of his friendship with his fellow missionary, Father Joseph Vaillant. The lives of the two men constantly come together and intertwine and then separate as they travel throughout the Southwest and elsewhere in order to minister to their flock, so to speak. The book takes place in New Mexico, which is not yet a state but a territory, and it is still largely out of contact with the American government. It is still the land of the Mexicans and Native Americans, and we see these cultures and their histories and tensions woven throughout the novel. But why is it a novel in stories?
Death Comes for the Archbishop is broken into nine sections, preceded by a prologue each of the sections contains several chapters. Each section could, arguably, be read on its own, it stands on its own. New characters are introduced in each section, and some of them do not reappear elsewhere. There is a very frequent use of the story within a story technique, which allows us to get a deeper portrait of the people and cultures in the region that existed before Father Latour arrived. One could say the book is really a series of vignettes that are connected through the fathers. In order to present the diversity of the different areas and regions to which Father Latour ministers, Cather has provided us snapshots of these places. We get to know the key characters of each area, who is most important, the key stories and histories of place, and Father Latour’s impressions. Given that the novel is based on/modeled after the story of two priests, Father Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Father Joseph Projectus Machebeuf and their time spent as clergy in the Southwest, we can see that Cather wants to give the reader glimpses into the different places and events in their lives. It is almost as though she is fleshing out a diary and transforming it into fiction.
What is most spectacular about the novel is Cather’s descriptions of landscapes and settings. There are lines that are simply breathtaking, such as, “The full moon, hidden by veils of cloud, through a pale phosphorescent luminousness over the heavens, and the towers of the church stood up black against this silvery fleece,” or, “These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas…” Notice the juxtapositions of religious imagery with landscape in these two examples, though most often, the descriptions are simply that of nature.
Of course, there is the issue of Cather writing about Native Americans and Mexicans as a white woman. In my opinion, Cather does so with great dignity and respect given the time period. We cannot expect her to conform to 21st-century discourse about race and culture. Remember, this is not a book about Cather’s sensibilities; everything we see in the book is filtered through the lens of the French missionaries, so naturally, that will inherently have a European bias. However, Cather is careful to show the complexities of the social interactions between the French missionaries and the Native Americans and the Mexicans. Father Latour finds much to admire in the various native populations, is good friends with quite a few of the Mexicans. What is more problematic is simply the issue of missionaries and conversion. What we see through the novel as 21st century readers, especially those of us who are colonials by heritage, is how fundamentally disturbing the idea of converting people to Christianity is. This is coupled with politics and power, and it is a deep part of American history that we do not learn much about. There is much discussion, and rightly so, about Blacks and slavery. But we also need to discuss America’s Spanish and French colonial history, as that shaped much of the West and South as well as parts of the Midwest.
Cather is not proselytizing by any means. Rather, she is giving us a portrait of a man who was on a mission, a man of deep Catholic faith, and his struggles and travails as a cleric in a large territory. It is a rather odd choice of subject and protagonist for an author who wrote such strong female characters who were very often the protagonists, and was open to immigrants of many different cultures. In The Song of the Lark (my favorite book of all time), Cather writes with great affection and respect for the Mexicans who affirm and support Thea Kronborg’s musical gifts. One of the strengths of Willa Cather is that she was able to write about so many different kinds of people in so many places and do it so convincingly. Perhaps it was her deep well of empathy allowed her to do so, for in all of her books, we feel that she really cared about her characters and wanted to share their stories with us. Never sentimental (Cather hated sentimentality), she is one who writes from the heart and with great heart.
In any case, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a stunning gem that gives us a glimpse into another place and time. It may take a little while to get into the book. But once in it, the book transports us into another magical world that we may have never known, or have forgotten.