You know what I think? I think that for the most part, good literature is wasted on teenagers. Unless you happened to be one of the young readers whose mind can early on separate words from plot, or who sits under the teaching of a magical pedagog, what you are required to read during the ages of 15 and 16 is all but totally wasted.Now perhaps I’m being too harsh on good literature and good teachers – and smart kids. But I look back and see that the books I was required to read in 10th grade (the year we had our intro to literature class under the guise of “English” – Julius Caesar, Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, Silas Marner, My Antonia, and maybe Grapes of Wrath - to name but a few,) was time wasted except as exposure to classics. Through the years I have often thought I should go back and re-read these books; surely there was more to them that the few scraps I remember, those scraps mostly being called forth by a crossword puzzle. But I have never done so. The idea of slogging through Moby Dick once again simply turns me off.
However, quite fortuitously I recently happened on a listing of novels with a religious theme (a genre I am particularly fond of) that suggested old Willa Cather had written a book I might be interested in: Death Comes for the Archbishop. I hadn’t a clue as to what it was about – except I supposed it had to do with a Catholic Archbishop. Not being Catholic myself, I figured I just might learn something, and besides, from my 1951 exposure to the author, she must have written a good story. So I gave it a try.I do not use many books in my blog; I read lots of books but only a rare few see the light of day in Hot Coffee and Cool Jazz. Well, the Archbishop book has made it! I was beginning to think that I would never find another book that was good enough to share, but here it is, at last.
Preparatory to writing this, I looked at what Cliff Notes had to say about the book. After reading about the plot, I decided that I had read a different book! Old Cliff is right in what he says, but what he doesn’t say is how one feels as one read through the pages of this book. Cather makes sure you feel you are traveling with these servants of God, wherever they go and with whomever they interface. I knew relatively nothing about that time and place in US history. I knew relatively nothing about the religious practices, requirements and skirmishes of the Catholic church as it interfaced with Spain, Mexico and the American west. Yet even though I can’t say I came out of the book full of such knowledge, I nevertheless experienced it all, thanks to her simple story-telling.
And at a personal level, when she wrote that one of the priests thought San Xavier Del Bac mission outside of Tucson was the most beautiful church in the whole world, I knew what she meant, as I found it so also. Our little family stumbled on that church back in the late 1960s we nosed around a hot summer vacation in Arizona. The church, both outside and inside took my breath away then; I had never seen anything like it, especially inside with the juxtaposition of huge statues of saints with tiny bits of hair cut from the heads of Indian parishioners attached to a photograph and laid at the foot of a saint. When Willa Cather so many years ago inserted a single sentence in her book about this church, and I read that sentence yesterday, I knew that it was my loss than I had not been more receptive of her writings that I was exposed to back in 10th grade.It is good that I am nearly through Ellis Peters’ series of “Monk” books, because I know now that I will replace her with Willa Cather. One needs to go slowly when reading a series, else things become very hard to keep straight in one’s memory. So in a bit I’ll get another of Cather’s stories and embark on this very pleasureful journey of reading really good stuff – and finally liking it!
And as a P.S., I confess that some tears jumped out of my eyes when the Archbishop died.