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I have read quite a few of Willa Cather's novels and liked them all to varying
degrees. But this one! Oh, my! All I can say is, if you only plan to read one of her books, absolutely make it this one. It is by far my favorite up to this
point. and I am not alone in its praise. It is listed number 61 in Modern Library's Top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century. According to
Wikipedia, it was also included in Life Magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924-44; Time's 100
Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005; and was chosen by the Western Writers of America as the 7th-best "Western
Novel" of the 20th century. It's a great book!
And I have to say, its subject matter was of the nature that didn't put me in a frame of mind for favoring it. It is based on the life of two Catholic priests—missionaries—to the brutal conditions of New Mexico, specifically to establish the Diocese of Santa Fe in the mid-to-late 1800s, which at the time covered thousands of miles.
Now, I must point out that for years I was a recovering Catholic from my long-time association with one of the most corrupt and abusive organizations on the planet. I'm not even referring to the criminal activities of sexual misconduct with children, I'm talking about the fact that some of the meanest, most malicious, arrogant, perverted and mentally unstable people I've even known in my life were priests, nuns, and high ranking church members.
And I am not a supporter of Christian Missionaries. It is my firm belief that the Earth-based religions of Indigenous peoples are often closer to the truth than the Christian myth. How many authentic beliefs have been destroyed by those who thought themselves superior. That is why I, years ago, returned to basic Earth-Spirituality, which holds far more truths for me. But this isn't a lecture on religion. You can find that on other pages of this site. However, my point is, even despite my bit of prejudice, Cather's story did not fail to deeply move me.
She is known for her novels which explore the hardships of pioneer life. Her best known works are from the Prairie Novels trilogy, especially O Pioneers!, which was made into a PBS movie. And while the characters in all her pioneer novels struggle with desolation and the brutalities of an untamed land, this one was harsher than the others, where one could travel across a barren desert for days without seeing any sign of life, and sometimes any sign of food or water either. The traveling priests often chalked up their miles in, not hundreds but thousands. In addition, the novel is set during the period where angry Mexicans suddenly found themselves Americans, and there was still a murderous relationship between the Native American tribes and white settlers. And more disturbing was that the Mexicans had already been converted to Catholicism by the Spaniards, yet found themselves now in a situation with no strong religious leadership. Many of the priests who were established lived more for a material world than a spiritual one, and abused the native population while growing rich themselves, along with living immorally with women, and indulging in gambling and other vices. This is the situation entered into by the two missionaries from France.
The story is based on the lives of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who became Jean Marie Latour in the novel, and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, whom Cather called Joseph Vaillant. Lamy was educated at the seminary at Clermont in France, but did not meet Machebeuf until they were both sent to Ohio. There Lamy was ordained as a Bishop.
In the story, however, both met at Clermont and became close friends. They volunteered together to serve in Ohio, and later to establish the diocese at Santa Fe. Much of Cather's story is factual, mixed with fiction. But what is so magnetic about this novel are the pictures Cather paints of the harsh, violent beauty of the desert, the strong, courageous and enduring Mexicans and Indians, and the blossoming of trust and respect the peoples develop for these two priests. The above link at Wikipedia provides further links about these two men, so I will from here on in just talk about the story characters.
The novel really is not the telling of a beginning-to-end story, but rather snippets of events, interspersed with tales of other characters, and filling in the blanks about the history of the two priests. Cather's character development is superb, and one cannot help but love and respect these priests' determined persistence, regardless of whether we agree with their motives. Although in this case, even I had to admit their presence in this part of the country brought nothing but positive support. The Mexicans there were already Catholic, hungering for leadership and guidance, and that is what the establishment of the new diocese provided.
Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, though close friends, had opposite personalities. Latour was more reserved, careful, contemplative. He had a love and respect for plants, animals, and surrounded himself with books and other items precious to him. Vaillant, was his Vicar, meaning, in the Catholic Church, a deputy for a Bishop or Pope. He was the ugliest man Latour had even known—skinny and small, with a hideous face and a wart on his chin. He suffered ill health in his earlier years, yet he was the one to travel thousands of miles to serve his people. He lacked all attachment to material goods or needs, and all his worldly possessions could be put in a few boxes. But he was a pro at raising donations from the people when there was a need. Though Bishop Latour was the leadership, he always felt that his friend was the greater priest. That was never so apparent as toward the end of the book, when Vaillant had been away for so long. Latour finally summoned him home, not telling him why. Soon after, a position opened in Colorado, which was to be annexed onto the Santa Fe Diocese. Though the conditions there would be even worse than Santa Fe, Vaillant was ready to pack and leave immediately. But it is here that he finally understood why Latour summoned him home: it was because he missed his companionship. And it was Latour who grieved his loss most when Vaillant left.
If the portrait Cather paints of the Mexicans is one of fidelity and devotion to their Church, the one she paints of the American Indians is of love of the land, and their sacred customs. My favorite quote comes toward the end of the story, and is about a Navajo named Eusabio, who accompanies Latour at one point on a very long trip back to Santa Fe:
When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that has sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnant of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. Since this was exactly Jacinto's procedure, Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like a fish through the water, or birds through the air.
In reading this, I not only enjoyed and extremely compelling story, but learned an immense amount of history, culture, and landscape. In
spite of the title, this is anything but a tragic book. Vaillant becomes a Bishop in Colorado, and Latour becomes Archbishop. And yes, they both die, but of
old age, having lived long lives and accomplished much.
It was Latour's (Lamy's) goal to build a beautiful Cathedral that would fit into the lay of the land perfectly, and that he did. It is still the Cathedral in Santa Fe, and a statue of Lamy is there also. They are pictured below, both from Wikipedia.
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