I had forgotten how much I like Willa Cather. I never read this one in my younger years. Somehow the title put me off for some reason. Maybe because I am not Catholic. But I came across a reminder of it recently, and decided to give it a go, and I am really glad I did.
It was written in 1927, and it was included on Time’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, and Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, and was chosen by the Western Writers of America to be the 7th-best “Western Novel” of the 20th century.
This gentle story, almost plotless but filled with incidents and encounters, perhaps IS a Western novel, not so much in the cowboy vs Indians style, but because it is set in the West of 1858, in the territory of New Mexico, shortly after the Mexican American war. It was truly the wild west, but surely not uninhabitated, populated as it was by Native American Indians of various nations, and by Mexicans,understandably since it was not very long ago part of Old Mexico.
It is about a young priest, Jean Latour, assigned as the new Bishop of the New Mexican territory, and his Vicar, Joseph Vaillant, both from the same seminary in France. They had to travel from Sandusky, Ohio, to the newly created diocese of New Mexico. At that time, Cincinnati was the end of the railway line west, so Latour must travel by riverboat to the Gulf of Mexico, and and from there travel overland to New Mexico, a journey which takes an entire year.
In order to get his official papers for his separate diocese, he must then travel to the former Bishop who was elderly and living in Durango, Mexico. A round trip of something like 4,000 miles over canyons, and deserts and many areas with no trails. This whole business took months and months.
One thing the book did for me was bring home to me the hardship of travel in that time with no railroads, and poor to non-existent roads, and yet people traveled all the time. Amazing.
The two men worked tirelessly to bring the Catholic religion back to the region. When the first Spanish priests came in the 1500’s, they were finally beaten off by the native people, but the Mexicans took to the religion, and over the centuries with no clergy, it had become twisted into a version suitable to the people, and our two clerics now were determined to bring back the true church to the people.
In the book we meet Native Americans, Mexicans, mostly poor common people, we meet some of wealth and prosperity. We meet corrupt Mexican priests, and self-effacing clergy who lived in poverty in order to support the populace around them.
The Bishop is eventually made an Archbishop, and builds his dream cathedral in the capital of the Diocese, Santa Fe. He had always felt he would return to France when he retired to live out his days in the company of family and scholars, but found he missed the open West, and returned to live in his small farm with its orchard. His death is really anticlimatical, because the book is not about drama but about the two lives well led by the two protagonists.
I often think I was born too late and should have been born in this period, in the West of the USA, but then I think, ‘Air conditioning.” And I conclude that I am where I should be.