I often come back to Willa Cather when I’m feeling stressed and in the need of the literary equivalent of a sweet hot chocolate, which is very unfair to this versatile and perceptive American author.
Published in 1927 and possibly the most well-known of Willa Cather’s works, this is a collection of short stories, definitely not a novel, despite what other reviewers might say. Certainly, its pages are concerned, consistently, with two main characters, Bishop Latour and his friend, Father Valliant, Roman Catholic missionaries sent by Rome to New Mexico, to rekindle and redirect the Catholics faith amongst the Americans, the Mexicans and the Indians, many of whom live in remote settlements, without sight of a church or or a priest for generations. When the two missionaries visited these people, whose religion was intensely-felt but wayward, they were seized upon to take confession, marry cohabiting couples, baptise children and say Mass. Maria, who finds Bishop Latour lost in the desert, exhausted and dehydrated, runs back to her family, crying, “A priest!”
The bishop (as he is for nine-tenths of the story) and Father Valliant’s job is to correct errors which have come about through forgetting, when people have had no contact with their church, and deliberate misunderstanding, like that of the priest who tells the Bishop that lexical celibacy is irrelevant in the Americas and in the nineteenth century. The bishop’s response is always gentle remonstrance, and sometimes he lets things lie, because the good that the person concerned is doing offsets his canonical error. In fact, this book reads more like a collection of memoirs of a real person than a work of fiction. Although each chapter follows through a set of incidents, there are no real story arcs and no obstacles in the technical literary sense.
Bishop Latour and Father Valliant are both saintly characters, the bishop more scholarly, reserved and dignified, whereas Valliant is a compulsive and courageous man of action, venturing even into the gold fields of Colorado when in late middle age, putting himself in danger, wearing himself out and driving himself into an early grave.
What I admire so much about Willa Cather is how well she gets herself into a Catholic mindset, when much of her other work concerns non-conformist Protestants. She enters into the Catholic way of thinking in full measure, showing us how the two main characters venerated the Virgin Mary and saw visions of her and the Holy Family. It is clear that she too was moved by these very Catholic things. My only reservation is whether a ‘real’ Catholic would be as ready to allow digression from received Roman doctrine, as Bishop Latour was.
Do read ‘Death Come to the Archbishop’. I love older literature. Everybody should get into older literature from time to time. Gives you a sense of perspective. I’m sorry I can’t give you a link, but this very old iPad refuses to copy and paste, and I’m battling with chancy (and expensive) internet in Indian hotels. It’s very easy to find on Google.
I’m trying to put together a travel blog but am failing, for the reasons above – hotel Internet, ancient iPad (and no access to ‘proper’ computer) and lack of time. I suspect it won’t happen. Oh well. Nice thought.