Two Best Westerns (and I don’t mean motels)

I don’t think it’s really fair to call Death Comes for the Archbishop a Western, but it is set in the west — in New Mexico in the nineteenth century — and it evokes the landscape, air, and light of that western state so well that I’ll take the liberty.

The ride back to Santa Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,–and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Throughout the,  Willa Cather writes scenes that conjure a physical landscape and atmosphere that you can still find in New Mexico. You can still travel to Taos and experience a  sunset where

the yellow rocks were turning grey, down in the pueblo the light of the cook fires made red patches of the glassless windows, and the smell of piñon smoke came softly through the air. The whole western sky was the colour of golden ashes, with here and there a flush of red on the lip of a little cloud. High above the horizon the evening-star flickered like a lamp just lit…

What fascinates me about Cather’s writing, and this novel in particular, is how much passages like these two I just quoted make up the story. Death Comes for the Archbishop doesn’t really have a plot. It’s the story of one’s man life, Father Latour, in New Mexico territory, from his arrival as a young bishop until death comes for him in old age. From the title, you might think that his death is a point of action in the story, but since this is not a plot-driven novel, it’s no more a spoiler than saying death comes for us all.

Instead, this novel relates vignettes about characters and experiences in Father Latour’s long and interesting life. And it gives Cather a framework to write about New Mexico and Arizona, which she does beautifully and evocatively. In many ways, this book shouldn’t work as a novel, and yet it does. I enjoyed it immensely. Cather has become one of my very favorite writers.

I followed up Cather’s book with Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. It is entirely fair to call this book a full-on Western, and one of the best I’ve read. The story is narrated in first person by one Jack Crabb, a 111-year-old Forest Gump of the old West. Crabb starts off his tale by describing how he was taken captive as a ten-year-old boy by a band of Northern Cheyenne in the 1850s. After living with them for five years or so, Jack manages to meet every character and turn up at every famous event in Wild West lore. He becomes a buffalo hunter, a drunk, a card shark, and befriends Wild Bill Hickock who teaches him how to shoot. Jack even tells a tale of how he survives a gunfight with Wild Bill — and he’s the only one to ever do so. He has a white wife and child taken captive by the Cheyenne, and later an Indian wife he loses track of in a battle with U.S. soldiers. Jack fights in the Indian wars, ambivalently at times and on both sides (sometimes in the same battle). He claims to have been at two of the biggest real historical battles: the Battle of the Washita (the Cheyenne were butchered) and the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn (the great Sioux/Cheyenne victory and Custer’s demise).

You might think that this sounds like a silly bunch of Wild West tall tales, but Berger really creates a masterful storyteller with Jack Crabb who blends seamlessly into real, known history and then adds a believable insider twist on the events. If you liked Lonesome Dove, you will probably also really like Little Big Man.

These two books were on my 20 books of summer reading list, which brings my total so far to 11 (plus I finished Middlemarch). I’m well into two more that I think I can finish by September 3, so that gets me closer to the twenty than I expected!



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