(I read this for the Decades 2010 Challenge and boy, am I glad I did.)
What a great book this is! I've read Willa Cather before (My Antonia) but I'd forgotten just how dreamy she is. Her writing is absolutely first-rate. I never wanted this book to end.
It's a bit of a puzzle for me why the title was chosen, because the book is so full of life's richness. Perhaps it's meant as a memento mori, with all the events--mundane or dramatic--merely the foreground for the Bishop's passing into his heavenly life. But as Cather tells it, the Bishop's life on earth could be the kingdom of heaven, too.
The story of a Catholic missionary priest in 1850s New Mexico--a Frenchman who arrives by way of a post in Michigan--doesn't sound like it will leave much room for heaven or lyricism. In the prologue we hear what kind of life the priest will lead: he will have to eat dried buffalo meat and frijoles with chili peppers, he will be lucky to get any fresh water to drink, and beyond the daily rigors of his post, he may be martyred for the church. This description fills us with foreboding.
And yet, not only is Father Latour up for the task, he absolutely relishes it. Despite his taste for the finer things in life--a comfortable house, a sturdy mule, a garden of fruit trees and flowers, and a beautiful church for his parish--he loves most the people he serves in the harsh but lovely country to which he is assigned.
This novel is filled with a sense of place that is uniquely and thoroughly New Mexican. Father Latour serves his parish attentively, devotedly for 40 years, sometimes returning to Rome for meetings and promotions, but he gives his heart wholly to the land and its people almost from the moment he arrives. He grows spiritually through challenges met, in the company of his reliable friend and fellow missionary priest, the woman who saves them from a plot to murder them and who is saved by them in return, the Navajo chief who is one of his closest companions, and the local residents. Far from being the sequence of hardships described in the novel, Father Latour's story is that of a life well lived in a place well loved.
Excerpt: The bishop visits the church late at night and encounters an old woman who is forbidden to worship openly:
The Bishop heard the old woman's confession. He blessed her and put both hands upon her head. . . . Happily Father Latour bethought him of a little silver medal, with a figure of the Virgin, he had in his pocket. He gave it to her, telling her that it had been blessed by the Holy Father himself. Now she would have a treasure to hide and guard, to adore while her watchers slept. Ah, he thought, for one who cannot read--or think--the Image, the physical form of Love!
He fitted the great key into the lock, the door swing slowly back on its wooden hinges. The peace without seemed all one with the peace in his own soul. The snow had stopped, the gauzy clouds that had ribbed the arch of heaven were now all sunk into one soft white fog bank over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The full moon shone high in the blue vault, majestic, lonely, benign. The Bishop stood in the doorway of his church, lost in thought, looking at the line of black footprints his departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of snow.