“This Missourian, whose eye was so quick to read a landscape or a human face, could not read a printed page. He could at that time barely write his own name. Yet one felt in him a quick and discriminating intelligence. That he was illiterate was an accident; he had got ahead of books, gone where the printing-press could not follow him.” (p. 85, in reference to Kit Carson)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
This was a solid little book, I unwisely chose to read it in the Large Print format so it hurt my eyes, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Father Jean Marie Latour is tasked with taking over the diocese around New Mexico in 1851 after its annexation by the United States. When he arrives in the unforgiving landscape, he finds that not only does the harsh terrain replace his native France in his heart, it also becomes the scene for many of his greatest trials and tribulations.
This book is fairly episodic, as it looks at nine or so periods in the life of the Bishop, as well as his best friend and colleague, the Vicar Joseph Vaillant. The back cover of the book would have you think that the life of a priest in the wild countryside is very lonely, but I didn’t really get that from the text itself, aside from the last segment. Latour and Vaillant seem to be welcomed into the homes, pueblos and villages of both the Mexicans and the Indians alike, who possess much in the way of Church architecture from the days of Spanish missionaries. There are of course many scenes of traversing rough country, living off the land and sleeping under the stars, but it never felt that lonely to me. As Vaillant is called away more often, with his eventual destination being Colorado during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, Latour thinks often on their life together, and how they got into the missionary trade, kind of providing a reverse narrative as the main story reaches its fatal end.
The book’s also been called “mythic”, and I’m much more inclined to agree with that. The way the stories are laid out is I guess roughly chronological, but not too much is constant between them. Latour has to deal with wayward Spanish priests who have taken wives and gamble and party all day long; the sticky situation caused by a rich widow’s inheritance and a bequeathment to the Church; a murderous road agent who assaults travelers who need a place to stay; and finally the construction of a cathedral in Santa Fe. It felt to me like any of these could have been short stories published in a magazine, but the way they are laid out does tell us about the melancholy of growing older.
Death Comes for the Archbishop reminded me a lot of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, partially because of all the Catholic dogma and belief, but also in the episodic approach shared by the two books. I’m probably one of the least religious people ever (seriously, the only gods I would ever really believe in would probably be Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, and no, I’m not really joking), but this book, like Wilder’s text, definitely makes a lot of Catholic belief make a bit more sense to me, and makes it beautiful in its way, the adherence to tradition and veneration of artifacts and miracles, especially. Overall, this book is an excellent one, especially in the approach it takes to death. It’s not something to be afraid of for the most part, it’s the culmination of all your days on Earth. If you do good things, like the two wilderness priests, you have nothing to fear. The quotation below says it best:
“‘I will go at once, Father. But you should not be discouraged; one does not die of a cold.’
The old man smiled. ‘I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.'” (p. 279)
Total pages read since January 1st: 6488 pp.
Next up on the Resolution Project: James Agee’s A Death In the Family (1958)