Monday, March 30, 2009

Land of enchantment

Current book: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Pages read: 3-103

Look, I actually read! I'm a good girl! And I was right to look forward to this book; it's quite compelling, though oddly so.

Father Jean Marie Latour is the newly appointed Apostolic Bishop to New Mexico, shortly after it has become a United States territory, in 1851. DCftA so far consists of his experiences in his new bishopric as he struggles with the terrain and the resistance of some its inhabitants to his authority. That said, most of the New Mexicans we've met so far, including Kit Carson, have been both welcoming to and grateful for a Catholic priest in their midst. Mostly Bishop Latour has been making trips throughout the area to complete the weddings and christenings that have gone long unperformed, assuring that his flock is in line with the requirements of the faith for entry into heaven. (Because God doesn't let people into heaven if they haven't been sprinkled with water. Everybody knows that. Also if they've had sex. Like ever.)

I'd say that the real draw of this book is in its slow and careful crafting of both atmosphere and character, rather than the events it describes. The plot is important, in its own way, but more because it tells us who Latour is and helps us to understand how his character presents itself than because Cather is trying to tell the story of early New Mexico. It is as though there is no real story; there is simply what is happening. It's not that Cather has picked out the important events and shown them to us, but rather that she began telling the story in one place, and will end it in another. Some readers might be bothered by this because it necessarily makes the book measured and deliberate instead of fast-paced and plot-driven, but I find it compelling in that it imparts an incredible degree of realism to the prose. There is no part of me that does not accept what Cather writes as truth. Look at that again. That means that, while I see her artistry in presenting characters and situations because I'm reading critically and I've been trained to do so, I still think of this book as a collection of things that are happening, not a story. That's an impressive feat.

How, you might be wondering, is she accomplishing all this? It's very difficult to say. Her prose is shockingly modern for 1927, moving almost into post-modern starkness, but with a large amount of lush description that aligns her more clearly with her period. That said, her beautiful use of descriptive verbs coupled with her precision of language in her depictions of the landscapes and architecture of the area show her masterful hand at an almost poetic level of composition. A couple of examples follow, because I simply can't help myself:
"The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush, - that olive-coloured plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds," (94).

"These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave," (95).
Those are close together because they're where I opened the book; I could find dozens. I can't count, already, the number of times I've read something she's described and had that internal moment of absolute accord, when you think to yourself, "Yes. Yes, that's exactly how it is." (Perhaps she has more of a pull on me because I've lived in the desert Southwest, but I'm dying to go there now, and see the reds and golds and smoke-blues that she so excellently recalls to the forefront of my memory.)

Combine all of that with her ability to show the very nature of the characters with their words and actions, rather than ever, ever telling the reader who they are and why, and it's hard not to love her writing, even if the plot is slow and measured. Life, after all, is slow and measured, and life is what Cather is showing us.

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