Before I get to the writeup, a quick note to those of you who pushed me to pick up Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen: I did pick it up today, and I’ll read it at some point in the next few weeks. The picture of Moore on the back scares the crap out of me, though. I would move to the other side of the street if I saw that coming at me.
I think Willa Cather is one of the most underappreciated novelists out there, and I can’t figure out why. Her novels are wonderful, beautifully written with great attention to detail and a deep understanding of human emotions. Her main characters are always compelling. And for people who read with an agenda, she offers a little of everything – she was as sincere an American patriot as you’ll find (by which I mean she clearly loved America and Americans, especially the immigrants who made this country what it is), and for the multiculturalists, she was one of America’s first great female novelists and probably its first great lesbian novelist. For whatever reason, however, her work has been gradually deprecated over time, and it’s a shame.
My first introduction to Cather’s work was My Ãntonia, a story of immigrant families on the Nebraska plain, with a focus on the eldest daughter, Ãntonia. It’s a beautiful novel that starts out as something of a love story but instead is a celebration of friendship wrapped around a praising of the immigrant’s work ethic.
Cather appears on the three main book lists I’m working through via another novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. While I’d rank this just a shade below My Ãntonia, it’s still an amazing book. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a story of friendship, even more so than My Ãntonia, along with a story of faith, set among the New Mexico territory when it was still largely uncharted land.
The main character, Father Jean Latour, doesn’t become an archbishop or receive a visit from the Reaper until the book’s final chapter; the book is almost a biography of his life starting from his transfer out to the southwest. Latour is accompanied by Father Joseph Vailliant, a slightly flawed foil to Latour’s compassionate Catholic faith, and the two slowly build their church’s following in their oversized territory village by village, overcoming corrupt local priests, narrowly avoiding a murderer, befriending the real-life frontiersman Kit Carson, and all the while deepening their friendship.
If there’s a criticism of the novel, it’s the general lack of conflict; problems are solved in short order and there’s no villain or enemy or large obstacle overshadowing the whole book. But I’d argue that to point out this as a failing of the book is to miss the point – Cather’s writing is compassionate, sensitive, almost sentimental, emphasizing the bonds that form between friends and the way that those bonds help us react to and influence the world immediately around us. It’s an optimistic outlook, one that I suppose is out of favor at the moment in the literary world, but if we value diversity in everything else, we should value it in literary viewpoints too.