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Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather
Every well-read person should have read at least one book by Willa Cather, an American Pulitzer Prize winning author famous for her novels set in the frontier. When my book club decided recently to read Death Comes for the Archbishop, I had not read any of Cather’s books. I was delighted that the choice was one that focused on the history of the Catholic church in New Mexico where I currently live. The novel provides as a backdrop a tour of cities, towns, pueblos, and open deserts inhabited by foreign priests, Mexicans, and Indians. Cather paints beautiful word pictures of the landscapes while depicting the difficulties of life, and especially travel, as two French priests attempt to revive the Catholic religion in the region. Churches had been planted over three hundred years earlier but did not receive much attention from Rome. With the annexation of new territories by the U.S., things begin to change in a land viewed as “wild” for many reasons. It is ruled over by the Bishop of Durango located in Mexico, fifteen hundred miles away from Santa Fe where the missionaries headquartered.
Jean Marie Latour, a parish priest based in the Lake Ontario region is elevated to bishop arriving in New Mexico in 1851 after a difficult and dangerous year long journey. He is accompanied by his childhood friend Father Joseph Valliant. Despite its title, Death Comes for the Archbishop is not a murder mystery nor does it focus on the death of the Archbishop. Instead, it is a triumphant tale of strong, wise, and intelligent men who against all odds form friendships with peoples of various tribes, cultures, and languages in a harsh but beautiful land. The descriptive language is exquisite and serves to enhance and further the plot. This book celebrates the usually successful struggles for survival and the somewhat successful attempts to share the Catholic religion. In the Archbishop’s passing, it becomes evident that he was much loved and respected by the peoples of the many cultures in his diocese.
Death Comes for the Archbishop is a tale I would enjoy rereading for the breadth of its descriptions and the depth of its topics. The two Fathers were men I would enjoy meeting. Quite unalike physically and in disposition, they were fast and loyal friends with different means of evangelism, but suitable to their characters. Although this book has a specific setting in terms of time period and location and has characters with a religious profession, its themes of devotion, strength, and friendship transcend the New Mexico frontier of the 1850’s and the Catholic priesthood. Although the specifics were interesting and an effective vessel for the themes, the novel proves Cather to be, above all, an able storyteller. I had no regrets in reading this work of historical fiction based on the lives of two missionaries, and I highly recommend it.
Category: Historical Fiction
Publication: June 15, 1927—Reading Essentials
Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth—brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree, before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.
There was a reassuring solidity and depth about those walls, rounded at doorsills and windowsills, rounded in wide wings about the corner fireplace. The interior had been newly whitewashed in the Bishop’s absence, and the flicker of the fire threw a rosy glow over the wavy surfaces, never quite evenly flat, never a dead white, for the ruddy colour of the clay underneath gave a warm tone to the lime-wash.
This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau.
Over the last few months, I have been implementing a huge change in my life. For the last six years, my husband and I have been living in México most of each year. We initially moved to Ajijic, Jalisco, where the climate is close to ideal. Unfortunately, it was like living in Little America, rather than México, with so many expatriates from Canada and the United States. After two years, we took the plunge and moved to the mountains of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. We spent four years there in a quiet, rural, gated community, learned a little Spanish, and enjoyed the culture and the kind people we encountered.
We are now in a different season of our lives. A four day trip with two dogs in tow, twice a year, has become increasingly difficult physically and more stressful. If you are following the news, you know that the trek is also fraught with dangers from cartel activity and random acts of violence. Mexican drivers are generally untrained and adhere to their own set of rules. My husband and I are both licensed to drive ALL vehicles in Mexico including semi-tractor trailers, merely because we paid a fee. A bribe was not involved. On our last trip north, we witnessed the aftermath of several different accidents involving multiple trucks. It was sadly clear that some drivers would not be retuning to their families—ever. Road hazards include often unmarked and unexpected speed bumps called topes on the highway, drivers converting a two-way, two-lane road into a three and a half lane road according to custom, and small herds grazing unfettered. Due to these dangers, as well as the increased potential for criminal activities, the general recommendation is to not drive at night.
So now, we anticipate winters in Farmington, New Mexico, and summers in Chama, New Mexico. To travel between houses we have a two and one-half hour drive rather than four days. We can enjoy either house whenever we choose, dependent only on snow conditions. We are already getting involved in local activities that in México we would not have participated in due to language limitations. Great shopping is available seven minutes away rather than one hour. We feel free to drive to restaurants and civic events at night.
We enjoyed our time in México and the everyday challenges of living in a different culture and communicating in a different language. We will miss friends we made in Ajijic and Pátzcuaro. It was not easy to arrange the movement of some possessions and decide what to leave behind. We also wanted to return with some mementos of México to decorate our new home.
I don’t know what the future holds for us. Perhaps more community and church involvement, excursions in the Four Corners area to explore ancient Native American cultures, motorcycle trips from our two home bases, time to explore our hobbies and, after life settles down a little for us and for some of the countries we would like to visit, maybe some trips abroad. Argentina has terrific Italian food!
I did a happy dance and a cheer as I crossed the international border and felt the immediate relief of having survived the journey and the elation of being home again. It was an oddly different feeling from returning to the U.S. for a few months as in the past. “Welcome home,” the border seemed to say: home, sweet home.
To my fellow bloggers:
I was more or less (más o menos) without Internet for a month during this transition. Internet was installed for us about a week ago. I have over 600 emails to deal with, and I have only rarely been able to post on my blog. Even my reading has slowed way down. Please forgive my absence, and be patient as I try to establish a new normal at the same time that I review books I have already committed to. I am looking forward to reading your posts and reviews again. I will still occasionally write posts about my experiences in México and my views on education.
As a bellwether for my productivity in the immediate future, I should note that I started writing this post a week ago. Much to my frustration, life has not settled down yet as we still have purchases to make, installations to schedule, and so many decisions to make. I must declare, however, that all of this is easier in my home language, and I am enjoying that change.
Bienvenido a Casa!
This little lady and about 20 more greeted us on our arrival at our cabin in Northern New Mexico last week.
We have returned a little early due to some events north and south of the border. It is not the pretty scene of midwinter with everything covered in a white snowy dress. The display is piles of dirty snow, some ponds where there were none, and muddy areas with deer prints. Although it is not pretty, it is a welcome relief from the drought of recent years. As soon as the temps rise, we should see a lot of green as the trees and grass spring to life.
But backtracking a little, we had four long days of travel with 2 dogs in tow to get from the middle of Mexico to Northern New Mexico. We spent 3 hours inching along in our manual transmission pickup at the border crossing into the U.S. Here are a few pictures of the Plaza de las Culturas (Plaza of Cultures) as you exit Mexico at Tres Piedras to cross over into Eagle Pass. We have crossed there before, but I hadn’t really noticed the replicas of ancient temples, because in the past we had zipped right past them.
One highlight of the trip for me was the small Texas town of Eldorado. On our trips from New Mexico to east Texas, we have fun finding the doughnut shops as we pass through little towns. We don’t eat at all of them, but Eden, for example, has delicious fresh doughnuts. On this trip, the doughnut shop in Eldorado appeared to be closed. As my husband turned around to tell me the bad news, a sheriff’s vehicle pulled in. We had a friendly conversation, and he shared that the doughnut shop was now part of the liquor store in town. He not only gave us directions, but when I pulled out to go there, I found he was at the stop light waiting for us and gave us an escort! As in many small towns, for purposes of survival, the shop (called A’s) was not only a doughnut and liquor store but also a short order grill and convenience store with some of the nicest owners you would want to meet. Texas friendliness at its best!
As we were leaving town, we pulled over for GPS adjustments and I hopped out and snapped some gorgeous
As my lack of inactivity on my own blog and those I follow demonstrates, the last few weeks have been hectic–preparing for the trip, making the journey, and transitioning into life in the U.S. again. I am so far behind, that I will probably alleviate the stress of unread blogs by deleting most of my email notices. My apologies. The good news is that, perhaps, due to a new tower and Internet provider in my rural area, I may actually have a good connection this summer. I am currently using a loaner device and it is fabulous. Under past “normal” conditions, I would be unable to make this blog post. If my actual connection is only half of what I am currently getting, I will still be happy. I find I have less time in the U.S. for reading and reviewing as I have a different lifestyle here, but the future looks bright!
Recently my husband and I decided to go on a ride on our dual-sport bikes into the New Mexico mountains between Chama and Tres Piedras. Perfect distance–not too long, not too short.
My husband is famous for transporting unlikely things by motorcycle. Like the time he brought me a dozen red roses in a vase inside his motorcycle jacket. So, while I envisioned a couple of sandwiches, some fruit and water, he prepared barbecued ribs, roasted corn, deviled eggs, bolillos, and watermelon. It was a delicious picnic with an awesome view of the mountains and valley below.
It was a little breezy and cool on top, but really a perfect ride. This is a great destination for those suffering from the August heat. When done, we decided to venture further and found a great backcountry road in the Carson National Forest. It was warmer there, the road was in great shape, and peace and solitude abounded. This is an area we plan to return to.
What does it look like in January at 7,785 feet in the mountains near the town of Pátzcuaro in the state of Michóacan, Mexico? It is not as cold as the same altitude in northern New Mexico in the U.S.: the lows where we live in Mexico are currently about the same as the highs in northern NM (the 40’s F). This is the dry season of the year, so we have to water the grass and other plants. But it is beautiful. I took a side trip into a neighbor’s yard, always looking for even a little flat land for walking. I mentally call it my secret garden because it is tucked away behind tall grasses. So, join me as I enter my borrowed secret garden and take a peek at the beautiful plants growing there.
Accessories to Die For
by Paula Paul
Paula Paul has written a cozy mystery set in Santa Fe and tribal lands near there. As a New Mexican resident for many years, I find her use of this setting well done and effective in Accessories to Die For. She incorporates the drug problems that are all too prevalent there and the Native American culture that binds Catholicism with ancient religious beliefs. Paul showcases the tourist impact and the artisan craftsmanship.
If the author did all of that so well, why am I not excited about this book? I think it is the characters; they are just not very likable. Irene has given up her law career to be with her aging and still self-centered mother Adelle. There is a potential love interest with P.J. an attorney. Both lawyers make bad choices and do stupid (illegal) things along with jewelry artist Juanita who is looking for her druggie son Danny. There is a murder, several assaults, and a major theft. When it is all sorted out, the person who is able to lay out the facts and relationships is realistically the least likely to be able to do so.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Random House (Alibi) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Notes: #2 in the Irene’s Closet Series
Publication: December 5, 2017—Random House (Alibi)
Danny Calabaza gave the flute its voice as he sat on a low hill that was sparsely carpeted with the brown and white grass of his tribal land. He had crafted the instrument himself from a piece of cedar wood in the manner of his grandfathers—hollowed from a branch, not split and glued together as some men did now.
The sweet scent of piñon fires wafted around her. It was a seductive scent, promising chile stew and fry bread cooked over the fires as well as warm loaves of bread pulled from the piñon-stoked hornos.
P. J. cleared his throat—something he never did in front of a prosecuting attorney. When a lawyer cleared his throat in a courtroom, it made him appear nervous. But there was something about this woman that threw him off balance. No, he wouldn’t go there. He would just look her in the eye and speak.
This summer I took a road trip from New Mexico to the South to visit friends and family. My route took me through the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, Missouri (going East), Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas (going West). I was driving my appropriately designated “Desert Sky Blue” Ford Thunderbird, but going through my head was “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” I hope the people who came up with that ad campaign, tune, and lyrics were well compensated–now that was branding!
Most of my time was well spent reminiscing and catching up. I was treated to some sightseeing along the way.
Paducah, Kentucky, is restoring its downtown area. So much interesting history there! We had a delicious lunch at a bakery that survived a major flood and currently includes a café, walked the brick paved streets admiring period storefronts, viewed fantastic murals along the riverbank, and lingered in a local museum with fascinating memorabilia.
In Asheville, North Carolina, I enjoyed the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, I went to the National Cemetery. It may seem like a strange place to visit, but I have memories of going there as a little girl with my father like you would go to a park. I had a fuzzy recollection of a “train statue” and was eager to make a better connection. There is a memorial there to Andrews’ Raiders and the Great Locomotive Chase, a military raid in 1862 during the American Civil War. The locomotive pictured below is a model of The General. The memorial is surrounded by tombstones of some of those involved and indicates which ones were executed, escaped, or exchanged.
A bit of history has been brought to life in the James County Courthouse which has been remodeled with a wedding chapel upstairs and a tearoom, which I highly recommend, beneath–wonderfully decorated, delicious food, and a friendly staff.
Always good to travel and always good to return to a place you call home. The New Mexico desert is a welcome sight as I head towards my mountain retreat.
We have two beautiful, large pine trees behind our house in New Mexico, and one slight problem. One of them leans. It leans towards the house. Eventually it will fall on the house. As much as I hate to see a tree cut down, this one has to go. We are blessed with the services and equipment of a local expert and his intrepid nephew.