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Sunday, June 5, 2016

What I'm reading (#13)

Two years ago, our high school librarian issued a challenge to students and staff; to read a hundred books in four years.  Anyone who succeeds gets their name painted on the library wall under the heading Centum Libri (100 books).

I love to read, so the challenge appealed to me.  The problem was, twenty of the books have to be classics.  My background in classics is sorely deficient, mostly due to a habit of avoidance when I was in high school and college, and I'd developed an attitude in line with Mark Twain's quip -- "Classics are books everyone wants to have read, and no one wants to read."

Still, a challenge is a challenge, so I have dutifully sought out classics to read.  And this week, I finished Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.

This book isn't the sort of thing I typically read; a quiet, understated period piece, in which there is little action and much of the plot motion is internal to the main character's head.  The story revolves around Father Jean Latour, a French priest sent to be the first bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Santa Fe in the mid-1800s.  Latour is not your stereotypical missionary; he is soft-spoken, gentle, and kind, and most strikingly, understanding and respectful of the customs of the people whose spiritual life he is entrusted with.  His vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant, travels with him into what was then a harsh and dangerous wilderness -- a rocky desert filled whose inhabitants (Spanish, Mexican, Native, and Anglo) were frequently at each other's throats, where there was no law to speak of anywhere outside of the widely-separated towns, where a misstep on a trail could lead to your becoming inextricably lost and probably dying of thirst and exposure.  Father Latour makes his way through this unforgiving landscape, earning the love of the people he leads, and eventually becoming the first Archbishop of Santa Fe shortly before his death.

The book is a remarkable portrait of the 19th century West.  Its sweeping imagery will transport you to another time and place, in a world where a trip from Tucson to Santa Fe was lengthier and more fraught with danger than traveling halfway around the globe is now.  It's not an exciting book, by the standards of the contemporary novel, but rather a rich tapestry which will stay vivid in your memory a long time after you turn the last page.

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