I have a different kind of relationship with Willa Cather's novels. I read My Antonia for a class in college and loved it. It was one of the better books we read that semester and there were a few good ones. Later, on my own, I read O Pioneers! and it felt like I was dragging my feet through quicksand trying to get through the book. There was no connection, no spark. So, I didn't know what to expect from another Cather novel. When I picked up Death Comes for the Archbishop I had no real expectations except that it couldn't be as good as My Antonia.
It is a very simple story. In the mid 1800's the Catholic Church sends a young Bishop out into New Mexico to take over a diocese there which covers hundreds and hundreds of square miles. Perhaps thousands. The Church is moving the seat of power from hundreds of miles to the south in Mexico to Santa Fe. Bishop Jean Latour is sent from the Lake Ontario region and he travels across the country with his friend, the Vicar, Father Joseph Valliant to put together a parish and diocese in the still wild region of New Mexico. The span of the novel covers the next several decades as Latour and Father Joseph work together ministering to the local Mexicans and Native Indians. The novel is as much a collection of stories regarding Latour's time in the Southwest as it is a coherent novel. There is no "plot" as one would traditionally understand plot. But it is an examination of the grace and faith of Latour and his interactions with various personalities and confronting individual conflicts in a true Christian manner. If one was able to choose what sort of man would be a Bishop, Latour would be the first choice. He did good work and left a positive mark on everyone he came in contact with. There is no overarching conflict through this novel, but the conflict is the building up of the diocese and the small conflicts that any Bishop must face.
For such a character piece as Death Comes for the Archbishop, I have to say that I loved the novel. Published in 1927 and set in the mid to late 1800's the struggles felt contemporary even though they are specific to a region still being settled. The attitudes and viewpoints of the characters felt appropriate to the setting, though they might grate a little harsh to the modern ear. Even so, I felt more grace coming from this novel than I did the occasional harshness from an outdated viewpoint which fit the characters. In this novel we get to see the growth of Latour and his diocese which he runs with a very hands on and honest approach...as befits a man of the cloth. We do see the examples of what a bad priest would be like.
Overall, I think Death Comes for the Archbishop is an excellent book and now puts me two up on having read excellent Willa Cather novels.