Paperback: 297 pages, Published by Vintage (1990), $7.91
Hardcover: 336 pages, Everyman’s Library (1992), $12.39
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I’m giving this book a 5Q for Quality. This book is incredibly well written. Its stark style and narative echo its theme. There isn’t really a flaw in the way its written.
I give this book a 3P for Popularity because this will be a hard book to sell, but could appeal to readers. This book is a niche book that will appeal to Christian readers and Western readers, however, its stark style could be off putting.It would take some convincing, but I think readers might not regret the decision to pick it up.
A catholic bishop and priest come to the new territory New Mexico to establish a new diocese.
French Bishop Jean Marie Latour and vicar Joseph Vaillant are assigned to the new territory of New Mexico to establish a new diocese for the Roman Catholic Church and straighten out the existing priests. The story encompasses many different points in their lives, but does not dwell for long on any time.
The Bishop travels alone to the new territory but gets lost in the desert. He stumbles upon a town, where the villagers help him recover before pointing him in the direction of Sante Fe. Once he reaches Sante Fe the priest there does not recognize him as his Bishop. This forces the Bishop to travel to Mexico to get his papers.
Once he returns to Sante Fe, his vicar has already arrived and started to make connections to the people of the town. They start to weed out the priests who are not following the guidelines of their faith or who are taking advantage of their people.
The two travel over the land covered in the territory and start to establish a diocese. The vicar Vaillant spends some time in Albuquerque taming the people there.
They save a woman from her husband who has murdered several travelers who have stayed in his home and has beaten his wife. They work to save another woman’s inheritance from being stolen by her husband’s brothers by convincing her to state her true age to the court. Vicar Vaillant is sent to Colorado and fund-raises money to get supplies for the trip.
The Vicar eventually becomes a Bishop himself, but ends up collecting a lot of debt and is called to Rome to answer for it before his death. The Bishop dies in his room at the church he built.
I don’t have many thoughts on this book. This sentiment comes from a combination of lack of connection, stark writing, and a head cold. There was no action, or real interest in the story. There is an emptiness to the story, a calmness. There are no real conflicts (other than the dispute over an inheritance and two priests who break away from the church). There wasn’t much of a plot other than the Bishop establishing and building his diocese.
The two main characters the Bishop and the Vicar are quite three dimensional. We get most of the story through the Bishop’s point of view, and he is a logical and calm man. He knows what he needs to do, and while he’s not the best with people or fund-raising, his Vicar is his foil. The Vicar is loud and passionate and is not afraid to ask for money. They are good friends and work well together. The few other characters we see don’t have much depth, but their actions are well founded in their circumstances.
The setting is the star of this story. Early New Mexico is barren and at times harsh. Cather’s writing helps to establish the feel of the setting and her descriptions bring it to life.
Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the book. I loved the sense of calm I had while reading it, but there wasn’t much to it (which was probably the point) I also didn’t enjoy the overt Catholicism.
I think this would work for Christian readers of the Catholic variety and certain Western readers. This book has a totally different appeal and feel than most of both of those genres. However, it would be a good experience to try. Historical readers might enjoy the insight into early New Mexico.
I’d say a flaw of this book is the lack of action, but that is probably the point of the book. In some ways I feel like it skipped over all the interesting parts. How did the Bishop get the money to build his church? How did it get built? How did the Bishop deal with the fracture in his church when the two Mexican priests split with the diocese? What was the Vicars life like in Colorado other than “hard?” But while I have all these questions about what I perceive as interesting points in the story that were almost entirely skipped, that might just be the point of the book.
Another title might be “The Bishop of New Mexico” since his death is merely the end of the book.
Christian Historical Fiction
A unique look at a unique situation in a historical setting. What really sets is apart is the barren and simple style it is written in.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Brethern by Beverly Lewis
Shades of Blue by Karen Kingsbury
Book Discussion Questions and Ideas
Talk about the writing style: significance, good for story?
Should Bishop Latour have kept bringing in French priests to his diocese?
Are the portrayals of the people the Bishop and Vicar encounter accurate?
http://cather.unl.edu/ – The Willa Cather Archive
Must Read in Genreflecting.
Why I Chose It
I chose this book because it was a Christian Fiction book, a Western and Historical at the same time. It was also a Must Read in Genreflecting which seemed like a good idea to read.