Beautiful, scenic - my fave bits were the descriptions of the SW landscape and the hints that Cather gives us of how hard that life was for the two RC missionaries who head out to save the souls there. But what it didn't give me - which is what I like in my priestly books - is an intimate view of either their struggle with their faith or their devotion to it when challenged.
Cather teased me with the stuff that I wanted to know much more about -- the relocation and slaughter of the Navajos and the Church's complicity in that. The tenuous balance between the vanishing Mexican and Indian cultures as the whites moved in.
I think I was looking for more character development and more plot than this was ever intended to have, so in the end, I had to settle for the loveliness of the descriptions of landscape, and the gently evolving relationship between Fr. Vaillant and Fr. Latour.
Cather describes beautifully the Indians' spiritual relationship to the land:"But their conception of decoration did not extend to the landscape. They seemed to have none of the European's desire to "master" nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from an inherited caution and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse. When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; an Indian hunt was never a slaughter. They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs. The land and all that it bore they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it."
Cather's level of environmental consciousness, there and elsewhere (the description of the setting of the Archbishop's cathedral was similarly evocative), and her understanding of the native American relationship to nature, seems so prescient (and so beautiful), writing from 1927.
What she didn't give me, what I wanted to see, was some level of consciousness and conflict among those whites - and the two priests in particular - that the colonization of the land and the souls there was wrong
. Instead, she shows me the Archbishop on his deathbed, stating: "'I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.'"
I suppose this perspective, from a character whose vantage point is so close in time to the occurrences, is as much as can be hoped for in the way of a political statement.