Willa Cather and I have always had a rocky relationship. I enjoyed my first introduction to her in eighth grade when my English class read O Pioneers!, a book in retrospect that was really not appropriate for eight graders but that is neither here nor there. It was still a delightful read about high drama on the Great Plains. Murder! Love! Misunderstandings! To a girl raised with a healthy dose of soap operas, I could appreciate and enjoy Cather’s subject matter. It was always my intention to read My Antonia shortly after but life got in the way and I ended up re-reading O Pioneers! in an American Lit survey class in college before I got back around to My Antonia. I read it the summer after, or tried to several times before I finally powered through it one stormy Saturday afternoon. I found the subject matter boring and uninteresting. It was set in the same place but lacked the action and strong characters of O Pioneers! to keep my attention for long. I was sad that I hadn’t enjoyed and scrapped plans to read Cather’s other often-mentioned work Death Comes for the Archbishop that summer.
Well, flash forward to now and I finally got back around to reading Death Comes for the Archbishop and was pleasantly surprised. For one, this book is nothing like O Pioneers! or My Antonia. Different setting, different subject matter, and a completely different reason for writing the book. As a reader, that threw me for a loop at first. I was expecting a version of My Antonia, just moved to a new location. Instead, what I got was a series of vignettes starring the man who was tasked with bringing Catholicism back to the newly acquired Southwest territories of the United States and the path his life took over many years to his death (I feel that is not a spoiler since the title is a dead giveaway. Pun intended.). I liked the many stories Cather chose to highlight in the Archbishop’s life. His travels throughout his massive diocese, his intellectual approach to the world he lives in, and the many friends he meets and loses along the way. There is always the undercurrent of religion but I liked that the Archbishop appreciated and respected the traditional religions and cults of the Native Americans in his diocese. I, never one for religion and especially not all that fond of the idea of missionaries, not once felt like I was being hit over the head with the religion of this book. It was more an exploration of daily life on the southwest frontier and the good, and bad, that entailed for the characters, many of whom just happened to be Catholic clergy. There is no overarching story to the book, just episodes in the priest’s life from the moment he arrives in his new territory to the moment he dies there many years later. I found it a comforting read; each chapter was like checking in on an old friend to see how he has fared in the few years since we last spoke.
So Cather surprised me in a good way. Maybe one of these days I’ll come back around to her short stories and see how they fit into her oeuvre. For now, it is spring (or will be one of these days around here) and I felt it was time for some Austen. Or at least, for the book of essays that came out on Austen last year. The book gives me an excuse to say “It is a truth universally acknowledged” a lot which always makes me happy.