Huckleberry Finn for Missionaries: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

The best way that I can describe this book is that it is like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but for missionaries. Death Comes for the Archbishop tells the story of Father Latour, who comes to New Mexico in the mid to late 1800s to serve as the apostolic vicar. He is assisted by fellow missionary and long-time friend, Father Vaillant. It is worth noting that the word “latour” in French translates to tower, and the word “vaillant” in French translates to valiant. Indeed, their names are indicative of their personalities – Father Latour is the calmer, gentler overseer of the new diocese, whereas Father Vaillant is more emotional, outgoing, and sanguine.

The book is slow, even plodding, at times. It is essentially a collection of short stories and anecdotes that happen throughout Father Latour’s life, with little tying them together. Perhaps that is the point – the life of a missionary in the American Southwest during the 1800s would likely have been mundane to the point of vapidness. Powerful themes and serious topics are scarcely touched upon and largely overlooked, such as the treatment of the Hopi and Navajo by American settlers and missionaries. The two protagonists are not particularly inspiring – they’re decisions and actions are solely defined by their faith. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the American Southwest landscape, where Willa Cather’s prose and uniquely expressive way with words truly shines. It’s the literary equivalent of the Hudson River School and their style of painting American landscapes in the 19th century.

Ultimately, I finished Death Comes for the Archbishop wanting more. If you do, too, then watch the movie The Mission. It is a powerful, gripping, and emotionally stirring film depicting the struggle between Jesuit missionaries in South America and European settlers looking to exploit the terrain and enslave the aboriginal inhabitants (the Guarani). Plus, you’ll be treated to the most memorable, lyrical, and beautiful music that film composer Ennio Morricone has ever written. Just give this a listen:

Nonetheless, here are the themes and subjects in Death Comes for the Archbishop that I found relatable or worthy of discussion:

Duke City Marathon

I was fortunate to travel to the region in which the events of Death Comes for the Archbishop take place in 2016 when I ran the Duke City Marathon in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Albuquerque is about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe). The terrain is almost alien – a completely unique geography in the U.S. Red-colored mountains, dry desert, and little water or greenery anywhere.

Albuquerque also lies at a very high elevation – higher than Denver, Colorado! If you do visit Albuquerque, be sure to ride the Sandia Peak Tramway. The tramway will take you up to the 10,378-foot crest of the Sandia Mountains, where you will have an 11,000 square mile panoramic view.

Below is a picture of a sunset that I took from the top of the Sandia Mountains, which mirrors the depiction of a sunset in Death Comes for the Archbishop:

“The sun was sinking, a red ball which threw a copper glow over the pine-covered ridge of mountains.”

Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop
Sunset from the top of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunset in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Native American Neglect

Perhaps my biggest problem with this novel is that it completely glosses over the mistreatment of the Native American tribes that inhabited northern New Mexico (namely the Hopi and Navajo). Author Willa Cather had a great opportunity to explore the theocratic nature of missionaries and their coercion and imposition on the aboriginal population. But just about all the character of Father Latour says is that he was happy to have lived to see the end of “black slavery” and the Navajos “restored to their own country.” It’s the overall indifference that saddens me, because even though this book was written in 1927 – almost exactly 100 years ago – not much has changed. The greater population is still indifferent toward the dubious nature of early American land acquisition.

Change Happens, and That’s OK

There is a small passage at the end of the novel that I found personally identifying. Father Latour is, essentially, on his death bed and nostalgically reminiscing about his life. He states that many of his relatives and friends – both in New Mexico and in France – had assumed that he would spend his closing years in France. He half expected himself to go back to France, as “that seemed the natural thing to do.”

In the beginning of Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Latour struggles mightily to adjust to the new, foreign world that is New Mexico. Whether it’s the unusual customs of the native inhabitants, learning to converse in a new language (Spanish), or the harsh desert climate, it’s all quite different than his previous years in France as a seminarian. Eventually, though, his attitude changes and he learns to accept – even love – everything that encompasses his life in New Mexico.

I feel similar with regard to my decision to be a stay-at-home parent. It was quite the lifestyle shock transitioning from the workforce to the home front. Many who knew me thought I might go back to work, and I thought I might too. I can’t say I ever thought I would be a stay-at-home parent before having children, but I’ve come to embrace my role as family caregiver. Change happens, and that’s ok.

Leaving a Lasting Legacy

This is the second book that I have recently read where the main character, nearing the end of their life, faces a deep internal conflict over what they have (or haven’t) accomplished in life (the other book is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – read my review of it here). And both chose similar means for leaving a lasting legacy.

Father Latour, despite being a devoted missionary and having spiritually saved numerous lives, finds that this alone is not enough to satisfy his self-worth. He needs something more – something material – that will emphasize and punctuate the purpose of his life and his time on Earth. Some way to say that he came to New Mexico and did something meaningful. So he spends his later years building a cathedral in Santa Fe. Likewise for Paul Kalanithi, despite being a gifted neurosurgeon and literally saving countless lives, he finds that this too is not enough of a legacy in the face of death. He spends his remaining time writing his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air.

I find it fascinating that humans – even those in the noblest of fields and professions – invariably return to the material world for means of a lasting legacy. I suppose no matter how profound our lives are, the intangible will always lose out to the tangible. And I, admittedly, fall into this category too. Despite being a stay-at-home parent and having the most important job in the world – raising my children – I still find that this is not enough to satisfy my sense of purpose in life. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons I started this website. To have something tangible as proof that I exist and I am capable of great things – my own way to leave a lasting legacy.

Have you read Death Comes for the Archbishop? What did you think of the book? Let me know in the comments below!

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