Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I have to admit, I’m a little Nebraskan in my knowledge of Willa Cather. Now, this doesn’t apply to ALL Nebraskans, but there are a significant majority who think that Cather is summed up entirely by My Ántonia. It’s just what Nebraskans keep harping on, and I admit that I’ve suffered from that fault. This left me a bit unprepared for Death Comes for the Archbishop.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was for Percival Everett and for Paula Fox.)

After all, My Ántonia is such a small portion of Cather’s work and range. Death Comes for the Archbishop, detailing the exploits of two very different priests who take charge of the eventual diocese in the new American territory of New Mexico, is a very different book. Tougher. Harder. More spare.

Just take a look at this bit:

After supper Father Latour took up a candle and began to examine the holy images on the shelf over the fireplace. The wooden figures of the saints, found in even the poorest Mexican houses, always interested him. He had never yet seen two alike. These over Benito’s fireplace had come in the ox-carts from Chihuahua nearly sixty years ago. They had been carved by some devout soul, and brightly painted, though the colours had softened with time, and they were dressed in cloth, like dolls. They were much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio–more like the homely stone carvings on the front of old parish churches in Auvergne. The wooden Virgin was a sorrowing mother indeed,–long and stiff and severe, very long from the neck to the waist, even longer from waist to feet, like some of the rigid mosaics of the Eastern Church. She was dressed in black, with a white apron, and a black reboso over her head, like a Mexican woman of the poor. At her right was St. Joseph, and at her left a fierce little equestrian figure, a saint wearing the costume of a Mexican ranchero, velvet trousers richly embroidered and wide at the ankle, velvet jacket and silk shirt, and a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero. He was attached to his fat horse by a wooden pivot driven through the saddle.

It’s been over twenty years since I read My Ántonia, but this is a very different Cather than my memories of that book led me to expect.

The sparseness of the prose seems like it would dazzle Hemingway, and Cather still manages to convey highly evocative images and descriptions within it. I remember some of that from My Ántonia (though I might be remembering that wrong), but the tone and approach seems much less sentimental, harder even. Of course, they are very different books and the prose seems like it should be different in those ways.

I also think about some of the Spanish priests that Latour and his friend have to contend with in the wildness of New Mexico:

“I have the telling passages all written down somewhere. I will find them before you go. You have probably read them with a sealed mind. Celibate priests lose their perceptions. No priest can experience repentance and forgiveness of sin unless he himself falls into sin. Since concupiscence is the most common form of temptation, it is better for him to know something about it. The soul cannot be humbled by fasts and prayer; it must be broken by mortal sin to experience forgiveness of sin and rise to a state of grace. Otherwise, religion is nothing but dead logic.”

“This is a subject upon which we must confer later, and at some length,” said the Bishop quietly. “I shall reform these practices throughout my diocese as rapidly as possible. I hope it will be but a short time until there is not a priest left who does not keep all the vows he took when he bound himself to the service of the altar.”

The swarthy Padre laughed, and threw off the big cat which had mounted to his shoulder. “It will keep you busy, Bishop. Nature has got the start of you here. But for all that, our native priests are more devout than your French Jesuits. We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil, and has its own roots. We pay a filial respect to the person of the Holy Father, but Rome has no authority here. We do not require aid from the Propaganda, and we resent its interference. The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and is indigenous. Our people are the most devout left in the world. If you blast their faith by European formalities, they will become infidels and profligates.”

That isn’t something you’d find in My Ántonia.

I keep contrasting with My Ántonia primarily because that was my experience with Cather up until now. I really like that there is more to Cather. You should keep in mind that I liked My Ántonia, though I also liked Death Comes for the Archbishop.

I enjoyed the toughness of the prose and how spare Death Comes for the Archbishop is while still conjuring an interesting amount of description. I didn’t think much really changed for the main two priests throughout other than how the world around them changed, but I don’t think Death Comes for the Archbishop is that kind of a novel. Death Comes for the Archbishop was interesting in any case.

McTeague by Frank Norris

If I had to pick one word to describe McTeague by Frank Norris, that word would probably be ‘downer.’ I’m kind of kidding…but I’m kind of not.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Stephen King.)

McTeague starts out with a character of the same name. He’s an ox, working as a dentist in San Francisco although he actually just learned from a traveling charlatan instead of going to dental school. He’s strong, but seems like a good guy. Takes pleasure in simple things:

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee-joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong butter and sugar. On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna’s saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. It was his habit to leave the pitcher there on his way to dinner.

Once in his office, or, as he called it on his signboard, “Dental Parlors,” he took off his coat and shoes, unbuttoned his vest, and, having crammed his little stove full of coke, lay back in his operating chair at the bay window, reading the paper, drinking his beer, and smoking his huge porcelain pipe while his food digested; crop-full, stupid, and warm. By and by, gorged with steam beer, and overcome by the heat of the room, the cheap tobacco, and the effects of his heavy meal, he dropped off to sleep. Late in the afternoon his canary bird, in its gilt cage just over his head, began to sing. He woke slowly, finished the rest of his beer–very flat and stale by this time–and taking down his concertina from the bookcase, where in week days it kept the company of seven volumes of “Allen’s Practical Dentist,” played upon it some half-dozen very mournful airs.

McTeague has a friend named Marcus. Marcus has a girl named Trina. McTeague falls in love with her and Marcus decides to be a good guy and get out of the way:

Marcus was thinking hard. He could see very clearly that McTeague loved Trina more than he did; that in some strange way this huge, brutal fellow was capable of a greater passion than himself, who was twice as clever. Suddenly Marcus jumped impetuously to a resolution.

“Well, say, Mac,” he cried, striking the table with his fist, “go ahead. I guess you–you want her pretty bad. I’ll pull out; yes, I will. I’ll give her up to you, old man.”

The sense of his own magnanimity all at once overcame Marcus. He saw himself as another man, very noble, self-sacrificing; he stood apart and watched this second self with boundless admiration and with infinite pity. He was so good, so magnificent, so heroic, that he almost sobbed. Marcus made a sweeping gesture of resignation, throwing out both his arms, crying: “Mac, I’ll give her up to you. I won’t stand between you.” There were actually tears in Marcus’s eyes as he spoke. There was no doubt he thought himself sincere. At that moment he almost believed he loved Trina conscientiously, that he was sacrificing himself for the sake of his friend. The two stood up and faced each other, gripping hands. It was a great moment; even McTeague felt the drama of it. What a fine thing was this friendship between men! the dentist treats his friend or an ulcerated tooth and refuses payment; the friend reciprocates by giving up his girl. This was nobility. Their mutual affection and esteem suddenly increased enormously. It was Damon and Pythias; it was David and Jonathan; nothing could ever estrange them. Now it was for life or death.

“I’m much obliged,” murmured McTeague. He could think of nothing better to say. “I’m much obliged,” he repeated; “much obliged, Mark.”

That is, until Trina wins $5000 in a lottery. Then Marcus becomes bitter. The friends become enemies, though much of this goes over McTeague’s head.

Frankly, after a long buildup to a happy life for McTeague and Trina, things spend the rest of the book going downhill. Marcus rats out that McTeague isn’t really a licensed dentist and McTeague and Trina descend into poverty. The brutish side of McTeague magnifies as time goes on, he really turns out to be a horrible man, as does the avaricious side of Trina.

Things pretty much go bad for everybody. Maybe this was just the way things were in San Francisco before the turn of the twentieth century.

I know I’m being kind of flip here, so don’t think that I didn’t like McTeague. The characters are great (though mostly horrible), the descriptions are meticulous and vivid, and the story is gripping. However, it is also highly depressing. It takes a long time to bring things all down, and there is really no doubt the whole time where things are going.

I really don’t want to say too much more than that. I know McTeague is an older book so many people may already know everything that happens even if they hadn’t read it, but I want to be sure. I hadn’t heard of it before.

Regardless, it’s a finely written book…but a heck of a downer. Don’t read McTeague when you’re depressed.

Eating Crow

So, way back in the very beginning of this blog (almost two years! Which is crazy), I told Dave that I would never, ever read My Antonia by Willa Cather.  See here for Dave’s explanation of the situation.

In my defense, during college, I never personally had to read a Cather book.  Which was weird in retrospect, since I was an English major at a small school in Seward, Nebraska.  But it happened.  Anyway, I never had to read one but plenty of my classmates did.  That weren’t English majors.  Who weren’t readers.  And what do non-readers being forced to read a classic do when it’s time to write a paper?  They go to their English major friends.  I _thought_ My Antonia was one of these.  But, I have since figured out it was O Pioneers by Willa Cather, that I would have to read stultifying boring sections of to help my friends write their papers. 

When I was in the library on Tuesday, I thought, “You know, I’m going to just -look- at the Willa Cather books.  I’m just going to check out My Antonia and -glance- through it”.  From the second chapter, I knew I was about to have to eat a whole, whole lot of crow. 

I loved it.  I read it in approximately 36 hours, which I do on a regular basis with books, but usually -not- one of the ones for here.  If you have been a reader for awhile, you might remember my time spent with Les Miserables (to be fair, that book is hellaciously long and very dry in some spots.  I believe it took even Dave longer than his average 24 hours per book.  This is not an exaggeration). 

My Antonia has so much in it.  The main character who narrates the book in first person is a young boy, approximately age 10 who moves from Virginia to Nebraska.  He does this due to the death of his parents, his grandparents are in Nebraska, so off he went.  When he is on the train, a train official talks about the Bohemian family in the next carriage.  He especially mentions a girl close to Jake’s age.  Jake feels embarrassed by this and doesn’t go to the next carriage.  He does see the family as they leave and get into the other wagon waiting at the station.

The story involves Jake’s friendship with Antonia, the Bohemian girl close to him in age.  They live near his grandparents and later when they are older, she is next door to him in town for awhile.  He admires Antonia, or feels exasperated by her, or disgusted by her “airs” that she has at one point.  Their friendship goes through some pretty normal changes for two friends in which one (Antonia) is a couple of years older than the other one.  They both grow up and the story mostly ends when Jake is 21, except the very end is twenty years later. 

Cather populates her book with real characters.  None of them feel like caricatures.  They all feel like people you could have known if you were around back then.  Hollywood and popular fiction have given us so many caricatures of Western settlers over the years that it was definitely a change to not be able to pick out certain types.

I would give you quotes from the book, but I was so into it that I didn’t even stop to look for anything. 

Cather writes a child narrator growing up beautifully.  I feel she led him through an aging procession, a maturing process beautifully.  Also, for her to do this with a child narrator of the opposite sex from herself, and to do it so well, took my breath away.

I am definitely glad that reading My Antonia was not the experience of the DaVinci Code, where a book was so hyped and when finally read turned out to be crap.

I do think this is a book I could find myself re-reading at some point and loving just as much.  It’s definitely not a very hard classic to read and very accessible language wise. 

Consider this my big plate of crow, and for having read My Antonia, I’m happy to be swallowing the feathers.


OH!  The following authors listed My Antonia:  Tom Perrotta, Richard Powers, and Meg Wolitzer.

The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

I’m not a huge one for books that are collections of observations and notes, essentially diaries, but I do have to respect the beauty of the writing in The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and how it conveys this corner of 10th-11th century Japanese life.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Heidi Julavits.)

As I see it, The Pillow Book is a diary of sorts. It is composed of a series of musings and observations written by Sei Shōnagon while she was a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi in the late 10th century to very early 11th century Japan.

With no seeming overall ordering or linking (in fact, any original ordering and even complete original manuscript appears likely lost by the time it was first printed), there are lists:

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

            Dried Hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

            It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

            Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

musings on nature:

84. I Remember a Clear Morning

            I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

            As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

descriptions of court life:

10. I Enjoy Watching the Officials

            I enjoy watching the officials when they come to thank the Emperor for their new appointments. As they stand facing His Majesty with their batons in their hands, the trains of their robes trail along the floor. Then they make obeisance and begin their ceremonial movements with great admiration.


Smoothly runs the river of Yoshino

Between Mount Imo and Mount Se.

Yet, should those mountains crumble,

The river too would vanish from out sight.


and many other similar pieces.

As you can see from the above, the language is quite beautiful and Shōnagon’s thoughts are interesting. She was clearly very educated and talented. Though she sometimes seems a bit obsessed with proper form and class rank, she also seems to be a surprisingly free thinker. Talking about taking lovers, adamant in her own opinions and aesthetics (to the point of being a little catty at times), she does not come across as particularly demure…regardless of how she may or may not have behaved outside of her notebooks.

I generally prefer things with a central narrative, but I still enjoyed The Pillow Book. Even the non-poem portions clearly show the hand of a poet and all of the disparate fragments have a essential unity to them. Diaries and journals may not be my favorite sort of book to read, but I was certainly happy to read The Pillow Book.

The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes Interview with David S. Atkinson—Yes, the very same David S. Atkinson who shares the blog with me.

Today, Dave and I have decided to go outside of our normal paradigm of reviewing a book from the Top Ten. Dave recently had his second book come out, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, you can find it here. His first book is titled Bones Buried in Dirt and you can read what I thought of it here.

So, in honor of it being published, and to give everyone something just a little different than our normal blog entry, I asked Dave 16 questions about Village Inns, his books, his reading habits, and his past. Enjoy!


1. For the benefit of our readers who don’t live in an area with them, can you explain what a Village Inn is?

Certainly. It was only when I started shopping the novel around that I realized Village Inns aren’t as ubiquitous as they’d seemed to me. A New York publisher had no idea what it was, which makes sense since it turned out that there were no Village Inns in the entire state. They’re all over everywhere I’ve lived, and much of the US (though not as many as there used to be), but they’re not everywhere. Basically, it’s one of the various types of pancake houses (IHOP, Denny’s, Perkins, Waffle House, and so on). It used to be just that, but they branched out into more lunch and dinner stuff at some point…though for me it’s still about the pancakes. Not all are open 24 hours, but some are. Many people stop there after a late night of drinking and such.

2. Why _did_ you pick a Village Inn? Why not Denny’s?

Some of it is the fact that I go to Village Inns more than any other pancake house. My favorites have changed over time, and which ones are better than others for various reasons change over time, but I go to Village Inn at least once a week these days. Part of that is proximity to my house, but part of it is the garden veggie omelet combo they have. I can get it with multigrain pancakes, sugar free syrup, and still have an egg and pancake breakfast for about 550 calories. Also, I worked in one for three weeks back in 1994. I’ve just always had a certain kinship with Village Inn.

3. One of your characters shares that she dreams of doing a road trip across the United States and writing dirty limericks on bathroom walls. What limerick would you write?
Probably the one that Kate uses. It isn’t the only one I ever remember, but it’s one I’ve never forgotten despite it being pretty lame.

4. What was your favorite part of the story to write? Why?

My favorite parts were always Cassandra’s stories. Not that she isn’t always telling stories in one way or another, but the stories where she says she’s telling stories. I love those in particular because she’s at the same time being both more and less honest. Plus, they were more free, more fun.

5. The main character, Cassandra, makes up a lot of stories about people, creating elaborate back stories about them, about her dog Daedalus being a live totem created by a race called wind elves, about their waitress unable to actually physically touch someone, about a manager with an irrational fear of Village Inn. Do you think you share this trait with Cassandra? Do you think that it’s something a lot of writers live within their brain?

I don’t get quite as fanciful as Cassandra tends to get, at least I don’t think I do, but I think we all do this from time to time. I think most of us don’t carry it through with this kind of energy or drive. Most of the time I’ll think up a few odd thoughts about somebody, but then I’ll wander off mentally. Cassandra doesn’t let go until she’s done, regardless of what she’s actually talking about.

6. You mentioned to me before that you wrote the first draft of this in a ridiculously short time. What was the germ of the idea that started it all? Do you always go past a VI? Were you in a VI at that time?

This all started with Joseph Michael Owens (author of Shenanigans!) recommending Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist to me. I tend to read anything Joe recommends, so I’d only glanced at the description for the book. I’d gotten a really weird and wrong idea what it was going to be about. As I was reading The Verificationist, I told Joe how much I was loving it but also about this book I thought it was going to be. He paused and replied: “You should write that.” It just clicked right then and the first draft was done in two weeks. Revision from there took much longer.

7. How much time did you spend in your teens and early 20s in all night or late night breakfast places? Who was the strangest person that you ever saw in one?

I spent quite a bit of time in places like that. Not that I still don’t, of course. I’ve been going to places like that as long as I can remember, though obviously usually earlier in the day when I was younger. As for strangest, it’s hard to say. I had a waitress at a Denny’s one time who seemed to be on something pretty major. Her pupils were really, really dilated and she talked extremely slow. I’m thinking some kind of downers. I ordered eggs benedict and she brought fried eggs. For some reason, she just could not get why this was a problem. I said I ordered eggs benedict. She said yes. I said this was fried eggs. She said yes. I said that fried eggs were not eggs benedict. She said yes. I can’t even remember how this got resolved. Maybe I just ate the fried eggs.

8. One of the things I thought while reading the book is that the characters were stuck in VI due to unresolved issues they had between them. Is that something you meant to come across? Or, was that something that I, as a reader brought to the reading experience and the reader’s conversation with the author?

That’s not an easily answerable question. Are they even stuck? Is whether or not they are stuck even a purely binary issue? If they are stuck, is the unresolved issues what is keeping them there or is it their responses to the unresolved issues? This becomes complex pretty quick. Bottom line: Ain’t tellin’. 🙂

9. You also told me that you write your stories on legal pads, handwritten, as first drafts. Why do you do it this way? Have you ever tried doing it on a computer for first draft?

Most things I write longhand first, most of the time on legal pads. There are some things I type on computer first, but that’s more rare. I’m not sure where this came from completely, other than that I didn’t have a computer (or a reliable computer or computer I could rely on to be permanent as any of my old files on Amiga floppies can attest) when I started writing. Computers always seemed like typewriters to me, a second step kind of device. I like to feel the paper as I’m writing and I don’t get that with a computer. Plus, longhand gives me an initial chance to revise when typing it up. Less distractions during as well.

10. The people that follow you on Goodreads know that you read extremely fast and often read over 250 books a year. What are 3 that you’ve read in the last 3 months that you’d recommend to people?

There’s a ton in the last three months that I’ve read and think other people should read. Since I’m limited to three I’ll just pick three of those at random:
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
The Meaning of Names by Karen Shoemaker
Atmospheres by Jon Konrath

11. If someone read The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes and loved it (which I did), what other independent press books would you recommend?

Like the above, there’s a ton of good stuff out there on the indie scene. I’ll just list a few I’ve loved at random (find a few good ones and they’ll always lead you to more):
Orphans by Ben Tanzer
The Desert Places by Amber Sparks, Robert Kloss, and Matt Kish
The Sea-God’s Herb by John Domini
Black Cloud by Juliet Escoria
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ by Tom Williams

12. What’s your favorite thing on the Village Inn menu?

Most often I get the veggie omelet, but I can’t deny my fondness for the Ultimate Skillet. The Ultimate Breakfast is good too, as are the Eggs Benedict and many other breakfasts.

13. Do you think that Cassandra uses her made up stories to process things from her own life? I wondered this due to her saying a couple of times, “Let’s not get into what I was really talking about”.

This is another question where a binary answer may not be possible. Does she? Are there different levels if so? Is she actually processing or just examining? Again…not tellin’. 🙂

14. The two other people Cassandra’s stuck with in VI are Thomas and Kate. Out of all the characters, which one would you want to be stuck with in a Village Inn? Why?

The waitress. She has the ability to bring food. If you mean out of these three, I’d probably pick Cassandra. I think hanging out with her would be the most interesting time.

15. Given the amount you read, what would you do if you were stuck in a Village Inn with no books?

Write. Perhaps eat, there’s always eating. Coffee too.

16. Your previous book dealt with a boy growing from 5 to 12, with different short stories about him all linked together. This book is quite different both with its characters and also with narrative style. What do you think, other than you wrote both of them, is something the two books share?

As much as I try to not to do the same thing over again, I go with the writing impulses that come to me. As such, I think things change quite a bit from one project to the next…all fitted to the particular project. Still, I think there are language patterns and techniques that I frequently use and don’t even necessarily know I’m using. That sort of thing is probably in both. Also, I do tend to stick to a certain flow. As different as the forms are, the flow seems similar to me. Both are at least coherent in flow on at least the surface, not exactly experimental. Well, to me they are. We’ll see what other people think.


The End! We hope you’ve enjoyed this momentary glimpse into the brain of David S. Atkinson!