Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather, A.S. Byatt

This review was originally posted on amazon on April 1, 2005. This book remains one of my favorite books of all time.


I read this slender volume on the plane ride home from a trip to Disneyland. It was a perfect antidote to the crowded modernity and garish consumerism of a theme park. I read an article in which the author claimed that Willa Cather is the greatest American writer, surpassing even Hemingway. I'm not sure about the truth of this statement, but I have loved everything that I have ever read that she wrote.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a mature book by a mature author. It tells the story of the life of a Catholic bishop, who eventually becomes, as the title would suggest, an archbishop. Bishop LaTour arrives in the southwest in the 1800s, and lives out his life there. The prose is spare and lovely, with descriptions of the geography of the southwest that somehow convey, in a few well-chosen words, the immensity and grandeur of the landscape. Willa Cather is able to define for us the interior and the exterior life of the bishop, and conveys his faith and his adherence to that faith so beautifully.

The book takes the reader through forty years of Father LaTour's life in just a few hundred pages, beginning with the conversation (of which he is not a part) in Italy that results in his selection as the bishop. The main body of the book chronicles the first several years of his tenure as bishop, and contains rich anecdotes of his experiences with the Mexicans, Kit Carson, and other faithful residents of the Southwest. The end, when death does indeed come for the archbishop is quite simply heartbreakingly lovely.