I first encountered Willa Cather back in college with her most anthologized short story, Paul’s Case. It’s about a young man’s frustration for people’s failure to understand him. Aside from that, I don’t remember much of the story, but I do recall how beautiful and dainty the writing is.
So when I read this novel, I was not tremendously shocked with its delicate beauty. I already have good expectations so there’s no big revelation that took place. What I find shocking is that I go out of my way to read something that is mostly about theology, one of my least favorite subjects, and yet I end up loving the book.
What does that say? That no matter what a writer writes about as long as the writing is good, the subject does not matter. And so I opened this book without fear of disappointment and with an instinct that this would be an unforgettable one.
That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!
This novel is about two priests, Father Latour and Father Vaillant, who travel to the then isolated sands and rocks and shrubs and boulders of New Mexico to spread the Catholic faith. Aside from that, there is not much going on in the novel. We read about the characters crossing the states for months on mules, dealing with the Mexicans and the Indians, dreaming of building churches, hoping for peace and unity to prosper in that barren land.
They also meet various people in the town and in the surrounding areas who would touch their lives one way or another. They are good priests, and in this novel as it is in real life, not all priests are good. They encounter corrupt priests who know nothing better than to set themselves as icons of greed and avarice and lust in their respective towns. But Father Latour and Father Vaillant are different. They do their best to do their duties as faithful missionaries.
The two characters, despite being best friends, have striking differences. Father Latour is the calm and intellectual type, while Father Vaillant is the temperamental and courageous one. These two are well-defined characters that you can only hope for them not to get caught in the middle of the Indian wars and for their health to be robust enough to withstand the various elements that can weaken the human spirit.
The setting is also vividly depicted. Just thinking of the novel and looking at the cover of my edition makes my throat feel parched. True, I only envision the color of adobe when I try to recall the events that transpired in the novel, but that’s better than black and white, no?
But what is it saying? What are its themes? The spreading of the Catholic faith versus the preservation of culture is one. The bringing of order in an untamed land is one more. Restoring the good reputation of the Catholic priest from the corrupt and vile image propagated by the unpriestly priests is another.
All three of them are the tasks imposed upon the shoulders of our protagonists. They are Herculean ones, even for a trusted priest like Father Latour and Father Vaillant. Surely, they need something more than merely being priests to perform these, right? Miracles are likely in this context, but one cannot solely rely on them. So what do they need to fulfill their mission?
Discipline. Ultimately, Father Latour and Father Vaillant are striving for a civilized world guided by discipline and following an order dictated by faith. I’m sure there’s more to pick from this novel and that there are allusions here and there to the many stories found in the Bible.
Just imagine the number of theological stuff here, and although theology is my weakest point, I still found it possible to love this novel. In the pen of another writer, this novel might have sounded too preachy, but Cather’s prose is not limiting. It encompasses everyone, planting seeds of faith and hope in any reader who closes the last page of the book.