Review: Third and Long

Third and Long, Bob Katz. Minneapolis: Trolley Car Press, 2010.

Summary: When a drifter, once a Notre Dame football star, shows up in Longview, Ohio, he quickly becomes the town’s hope to save its major factory, lead its football team to victory, and maybe save the town.

He’d drifted from town to town after a brief football career, dropping out of Notre Dame. With experience in clothing manufacturing, he got off the train in Longview, Ohio in 1997 to apply for a job as factory manager of the Made Right Clothing Company, the major business in this Ohio River county seat. He almost didn’t make the cut until Marie, the administrative assistant who had taken a shine to him let slip he had a football injury. His abbreviated career at Notre Dame, under the name of Nick Nocero was enough to change the owner’s mind.

It became clear he faced a challenge. There had already been layoffs. Foreign competition was making it more difficult to get contracts. Yet the change was noticeable. Nocero cared, and would help out wherever needed. Working with the union steward, they met some rush contracts and business was up. But that just appeared to make them more attractive to some visiting Korean businessmen discussing a “strategic partnership.”

Longview High School, playing at Made Right Stadium, had fielded a string of mediocre football teams, the Bobcats, under Coach Pruitt, who has just suffered a stroke. The assistant, Sherman, was a math teacher who could do stats but knew little of the game. The Made Right owners put the pressure on for Nick to help. He assists and then takes over, which Sherman was only too glad for him to do. And the team starts winning. Marie’s son Brian plays for them, and he not only plays better, but starts becoming a better student.

Suddenly he is in demand. To speak to the Chamber of Commerce. To swap stories at the American Legion. To get a celebrity to the town’s Christmas tree lighting event. Both for the town and for him, it’s “third and long” and everyone is hoping for a miracle. The company, the school, the town have been just hanging on. Marie, a single mom sees a man who is worthy of her.

It’s hopeful. The team’s winning, the company is making respectable gains, and romance is budding. But there is a secret in Nick’s past that could trip him, and the whole shebang, up, downing them all for a loss.

Bob Katz has captured life in an Ohio town. The cover even looks familiar, like I’ve been in this town. Nearly all the small county seats are just hanging on, if that. If that one big employer pulls out, it changes everything. It has for a number of them. He also captures how a winning team can lift a whole town. Nick both intrigues, with the sense of mystery surrounding his life, about which he say little, and his ability to lead and inspire. Katz understands what a famous pastor once observed, that people love to be led well. The people of the town did, the kids did, and I found myself rooting for Nick, as he tries to make the most of this “third and long” shot to show what he can do, who he can be. This is a finely written story speaking to the hopes we cling to for ourselves, and for the places we call home.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author.

Review: Hangdog Souls

Hangdog Souls, Marc Joan. London: Deixis Press, 2022.

Summary: A fugitive English soldier in southern India makes a Faustian bargain winning endless life at the cost of countless others over three centuries.

John Saunders is a fugitive English soldier in the Dravidian highlands of southern India as the British colonials are invading. He has a beautiful wife and an adorable son, who has captured the eye of the corrupt ruler with a mysterious machine in the dome of his castle complex. John is feigning that he is Portuguese and has brought seeds of eucalyptus trees that he hopes to establish in the highlands, making his fortune. As the British lay siege, he plans an escape for himself and huis family, but is found out by the ruler, who offers him a Faustian bargain, to become the “bridge” for souls, offering them a better world for their lives.

His trees are saved, and recur throughout the succeeding vignettes. But his wife and son are not. But John cannot die, even from a wound that nearly beheads him. He must live with his shame while ushering others to their fate. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes over 300 years. A priest burdened with the death of his wife Emma who encounters John. A butterfly enthusiast seeking the Black Papilio, and finding so much more. A functionary of the Sarpal Tea Company sent to the Kalisholi estates to investigate accounts ends up offering himself to a snake at a time when the local gods demand five garlands, five lives. A tourist glimpsing the mysterious woman in a blue sari, An embalmer who must create images of three gods using human corpses. A boy indentured to an uncle who immolates himself after listening to John’s story.

On it goes until three hundred years later, a Keralan particle physicist, Chandy John, involved in an experiment that has driven the previous scientist mad. Will he succumb to the burden of his own losses and griefs, having lost his wife in a tragic accident or will he break the cycle?

The book revolves around the question: What weight can balance the death of an innocent? How much grief must John bear for the grief he causes, and for how long? When will the scales be balanced? John is able to do what he does because of the griefs others bear. The appeal of escape through death, perhaps atoning for one’s guilt and shame. But the question makes us wonder if in fact whether there is any human counterweight to the death of an innocent?

I’ve seen this book classified in the horror genre. It seemed to me to have elements of horror, historical fiction, and magical realism about it. I’m not sure I know what it is. For the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Yet as story after story unfolded, variations on a theme I found myself wondering how or whether this would all end, and drawn into the storytelling to find out.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Recapitulation

Recapitulation, Wallace Stegner. New York:Vintage, 2015, originally published in 1979.

Summary: When former ambassador Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City for the funeral of an aunt, long-forgotten memories of his youth come back to challenge how he has remembered this formative part of his life.

Memory is a funny thing. What we remember and how we remember former events and people are far from static. They are written and re-written, deleted and restored throughout our lives.

Bruce Mason is a successful former ambassador, still on call for delicate negotiations. It is how he is known, and knows himself. His youth in Salt Lake City has faded to the far recesses of his memories and thoughts. That is, until an aunt for whom he is a guardian passes and he must return as the last living relative to bury her.

When he arrives, he is given a package saved by his aunt. In it are a letter sweater, letters and mementos from Nola, his one serious relationship with a girl. He spends much of his short stay remembering her–how they met, were drawn to each other, the times they were intimate, and the choice he made to delay marriage to pursue law school, sending her pretentious but unfeeling letters, led her to break off the relationship and take up with Bailey, his sexually seductive friend.

He also gets a call from Joe, the high school friend who drew him out of the isolation enforced by his bootlegger father. He worked for Joe’s dad, who wanted to bring him into the business. Joe brought him into a social network that drew him out of his shell. He keeps putting off calling him back, visiting the house late at night but never connecting.

Other memories flood back. The tragic life of his brother. His bootlegger father who he could never satisfy and who constrained his youth, both in not interfering with clients and keeping hush-hush his illegal activity. His long-suffering mother, dying of breast-cancer while his father makes another “business trip.”

He walks and drives the streets, so changed from his youth, bringing back other memories. The aunt’s funeral, concluding the book, ends with a thunderstorm, in some ways cleansing away all the memories as Mason prepares to depart. Or does it?

We are left wondering about the connection between the person he was and the pain he had known, and the person he has become. How is the man he is now related to the youth he remembers. We wonder why he doesn’t want to see his best friend, and why he had not been in touch with this friend after he left Salt Lake City.

And reading this makes one wonder how we have edited our own memories of the past. What have we stuffed in a closet? What self have we crafted and cultivated in our adult lives? Some, it seems, spend most of their lives wistfully looking back on the years of their youth as “the best years of our lives” while others try hard to forget them? It seems to me that Stegner’s novel, for the latter group, underscores the truth that “you can’t go home again” and if you do, you better be prepared for what you may find.

Review: Olive, Again

Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: The sequel to Olive Kitteridge, an older Olive on her second marriage after Henry died, the indignities and transitions of aging, coming to terms with relationships with children and others, and the unique ways Olive shows up, helpfully, when you’d least expect it.

Olive Kitteridge is back. Elizabeth Strout has given us another exquisite set of stories revolving around Olive Kitteridge, the retired school teacher, always of an opinion, frank, sometimes to abrasiveness, and surprisingly sympathetic when it matters most.

This is an older Olive, and many of the stories revolve around the challenges of aging. She gives voice to the experience of many, marrying a second time after her first husband, Henry, had died. She married Jack Kennison, a retired Harvard professor, exiled to main after being exiled under the cloud of sexual harassment allegations. We experience how good it is to share a bed with someone again, and how hard. There are the bodily changes, and compensations–pedicures when no longer able to trim one’s nails, for example. Others are harder, including a heart attack, needing to wear Depends for incontinence, and falls.

Several stories focus around relationships with children, including a visit to Olive by Philip and his wife Ann and their son Henry. There are the realizations of the shortcomings of parenting, the compensations when kids nevertheless turn out to be decent human beings, and the reconciliations, such as when Ann opens up about the feeling of being a “motherless child” and Olive recognizes that this must be how Philip has felt as well. And there are the shifts in relationship, as parent becomes increasingly dependent on child, as is the case as Olive suffers a heart attack and a fall, and must move out of the big house Jack has left to a senior facility.

Then there are the relationships, some with former students. At a baby shower, Olive ends up delivering a baby, exercising her common sense with the laboring mother who is trying to make it through a tedious shower. Perhaps the most touching of the collection is how Olive walks with a cancer patient, a former student, as she undergoes chemo, the avoidance of other friends, and the fear of death. I found this perhaps the most powerful of the collection. Another case turns out less well, as an encounter with a former student turned poet laureate ends up with the encounter memorialized, not favorably, in a poem.

Strout gives us an unblinking portrayal through Olive and the circle around her of the journey of aging, the joys, the vicissitudes, the resolutions, and the unresolved. In Olive, we see a character who grows even as she ages, in self-understanding and empathy, even as she remains the indomitable Olive we’ve come to know.

Review: Crumpled Paper

Crumpled Paper: A Novel About Art and Tea, Michael S. Moore. Sanford, NC: Word-Brokers, LLC, 2022.

Summary: The tale of the unfolding of an artistic vision, and a friend who, acting as agent, just wants his artist friend to stay solvent.

Crumpled paper. Have you ever thought what happens when you crumple a two dimensional sheet of paper into a ball? Suddenly a uniform sheet of paper becomes an unbelievably complex three dimensional object with ridges, folds, and much greater compressive strength. Flatten out a crumpled paper and one sees an incredible network of fold lines.

The central character in this work, Richard, as part of his artistic journey, creates a show consisting of crumpled paper drawings. One of these, Crumpled Paper #3 is sold to a photographer friend at the show for $1000. If he would have saved the crumpled ball of paper from which it was drawn, he could have sold that to her as well, probably for the same price. So he laments to his friend Glenn in Le Petite Café where he goes to drink tea from a special cup linked to his muse, Renoir and his favorite painting of Renoir’s, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Richard even has a favorite table with the perfect view, which he eventually “buys” with one of his drawings.

In the course of this book we meet a number of Richard’s friends, many also artists in various media–photographers, writers, musicians, and dancers. Conversations move between galleries and cafés, as they talk about their work, sometimes collaborating. Meanwhile Glenn, acting as Richard’s agent, tries to keep him financially solvent as he pursues his artistic vision which moves successively to a huge ball of collaboratively crumpled paper as the centerpiece of an show, to a culminating show featuring dresses made from paper, displayed as they would be in a fashion show on live models. How all this unfolds, how Richard’s mind works, and his efforts to live an aesthetic vision in art, in drinking tea, and the rest of life make this fun.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Richard, Crumpled Paper #3 has an interesting life of its own, doubling and re-doubling in price. There is a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary on all this. What was pure accident, doing the drawing on the wrong side of the paper, as evident in a reversed watermark, becomes part of the mythos of the work. We also see one of the sad ironies of works that increase in value. The artist only realizes the price he or she sold it for.

I love the way Michael S. Moore unfolds this story. The conversations among artists and connoisseurs and the feeding off of one another’s inspiration rings true to time I’ve spent with artists secure enough to appreciate each other’s work. I liked the characters in this story, the development leading up the final show, and the denouement, which I will leave you to discover. And I found myself drooling over the different dishes they enjoy at Le Petite Café.

The most delightful thing about this is that the book is by a local (to me) author and it may well be my “sleeper” of the year. I like to review local authors if I think they might have an interesting work that I’ll be able to recommend. This one did not disappoint and I hope this is only the first I see from this author.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author.

Review: One of Ours

One of Ours, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991 (Originally published 1922).

Summary: The story of Claude Wheeler, raised on a Nebraska farm, longs to live his ideals and find his purpose and does so in the First World War.

This is my last read in what I might call “The Year of Willa Cather.” I discovered her fine writing this year (how did I miss her so long). This work, a later one, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. Yet I found it the least satisfying of the works I’ve read.

The story is in two parts. In the first, Claude grows into adulthood on a Nebraska farm. Unlike his father and older brother with minds for business, Claude is something of a romantic, his mind filled with heroic ideals from conversations with his mother, a stint at a Christian school and his association with the Erlich family, culturally refined freethinkers. Called back to help on the farm, Claude faces the death of his romantic visions, even while still cherishing something of the pastoral beauty of the land. After an accident, he is nursed by the beautiful Enid, whose aspirations are more toward missionary service than love. Claude ardently seeks her hand in marriage, hoping that in love with such a perfect soul, he’ll find purpose. Despite warnings and the attentions of the more worldly Gladys Farmer, he marries Enid, only to find her uninterested in his affections. When her sister, a missionary in China turns ill, she leaves Claude to nurse her and take her place. His hopes dashed, he closes up the house he lovingly build to return home to his parents.

And so it might have ended were it not for the war. One of the great “might have beens” is what might have happened if he would have gotten together with Gladys. Instead, the war intervenes, he enlists and becomes an officer. Cather describes the horror of a plague ship as the flu of 1918 strikes his troop transport. Heroically he assists the doctor in caring for his bunkmate, and many other soldiers, some who do not make it but are buried at sea. He experiences something of the “band of brothers” solidarity with his company of solders, including a fellow officer, Gerhardt, with whom he is billeted.

It seems he finds the fulfillment of ideals and purpose in the Allied cause, during a series of battles. But I wonder whether this is really so, or rather, does he achieve a sense of worth in acting with courage, something he has always lacked? I find myself struggling with Cather’s portrayal of war–at times startlingly real in describing the realities of trench warfare, and at other times, creating an ideal, at least in the mind of Claude, that seems to idealize a terrible war. Sergeant Hicks seems more realistic, wanting to retreat to the “logical and beautiful inwards of automobiles for the rest of his life.”

What Cather does capture is the reality of wars that usurp the lives of so many young still trying to make sense out of life, leaving them cynical and traumatized, offering brief shining moments to others, and snuffing out the lives of too many too soon. She alludes to the number who return who take their own lives, which may be one of the early instances of writing about the inner wounds of war. And she leaves us wondering about all the “might-have-beens” of the beautiful-souled character of Claude.

Review: Our Missing Hearts

Our Missing Hearts, Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

Summary: Bird Gardner and his father spend life trying not to be noticed, even as Bird wonders about his mother, the stories she told, why she left them, and where she has gone in a country that turned against her poetry even as one phrase became a rallying cry for all those separated from their children.

This is a haunting work because one sees all the elements except for a PACT act. Economic crisis. Anti-Asian prejudice and violence. The use of blaming foreign powers and actors for our problems. The use of state power to separate children from their parents. The removal of books from schools and libraries. The surveillance state we have lived in since 9/11.

All of this comes together around a twelve year old boy, Bird Gardner, living with his father, who works in an academic library, who loves words, and desperately is working to avoid anything to raise suspicion that could result in Bird being taken away from him. Bird’s mother Margaret left them when he was nine. A book of poems she wrote when she was carrying him, and one poem in particular with the line “our missing hearts” became associated with the rallying cry and symbol of a resistance movement to the forced removal of children from their homes for the least suspicion of violating the PACT Act (Preserving American Culture and Traditions).

Although his father has taught Bird that they must disavow her and have no communication with her, he both misses her and wonders why she would leave them and what she is doing now. Sadie, a school friend, and one of the removed children, thinks his mother is part of the resistance movement that, out of nowhere puts up protest installations of hearts or other symbols of the missing children.

But Bird doesn’t learn the true story until a series of clues that begins with a letter without return address covered with cat drawings leads to looking in a closet in their former home (still owned but closed up while they live in a dorm apartment), where Bird finds an address in New York City.

With the help of a librarian, who is part of an underground network of librarians who are collecting a database of parents and missing children, Bird figures out how to get to New York where he reconnects with his mother through a rich mutual friend, Dutchess (Domi) who lives at the address he’d found. Over several days in a derelict house, his mother tells the story of her life–how she and Domi survived the Crisis which led to the passage of the PACT act, how she met Bird’s father, wrote a book of poetry with paltry sales until the death of one protestor carrying the words “our missing hearts” was captured in a photograph at the moment she was fatally shot. The book was found among her effects, sold like crazy until the authorities shut it down, and vilified the author, who’d never meant to spawn a resistance.

She tells of the decision to leave to save Bird from being parted from both parents, and her awakening as she learned of what had happened to so many children that she had avoided knowing. She tells the story as she makes bottle cap devices with wires and transistors and “seeds” these throughout the city for her own act of resistance.

I have not heard the audio version of this but the voice I hear is one of quiet, but insistent wondering, both of Bird, and then of Margaret. Each is trying to unravel a story, Bird of his mother, Margaret of all the lost children, beginning with the young woman who died in protest. Both are engaged in a quiet resistance rooted in the pursuit of truth–unwilling to accept any longer the “comply and keep your head down” ethic fostered by PACT. Even Bird’s decision at the very end reflects that quiet, resistant pursuit of truth.

The haunting thing about this book is the awareness that the dystopian state Ng portrays is not that far removed from our present day reality. As I mentioned in the beginning, nearly all of the pieces are there. I suspect most of us are, like Margaret, among those who do not want to see, who think, this cannot happen here. The author of Little Fires Everywhere could have called this Little Resistances Everywhere. Ng portrays what a resistance of truth that will not bow to power might look like. And in doing so, this book feels like it is Ng’s own quiet act of resistance.

Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin. New York: Vintage Books, 2013 (originally published in 1953).

Summary: An account of John Grimes fourteenth birthday, centering on his brother Roy’s stabbing, his estrangement from his father, and the Saturday night “tarrying service” at a pentecostal church, revelatory of the lives of those around John and his own “salvation.”

It is John Grime’s fourteenth birthday. He’s the well-behaved older son who can never please his father Gabriel, who struggles with his awakening sexuality, a deep sense of both sin, and resentment of his father’s religion. After doing his chores, his mother gives him some money to spend on his own birthday gift. He goes to the movies. When he returns, he finds his younger brother Roy has been cut up in a knife fight. His father is so angry he takes it out on his wife Elizabeth and John before he finally whips Roy, until Gabriel’s sister Florence restrains him. John slips out to clean the church with his older friend Elisha for the evening “tarrying service,” a pentecostal prayer service on Saturday night before the Sunday service.

The second part centers around the prayer service, and the three prayers of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth, with flashbacks to their earlier lives. Florence, to get away from the town where three white men raped a girl, Deborah, but even more, from her brother Gabriel, always favored, moves to New York, marries Frank who never settles down, leaves her for another woman, and dies in the war. She’s the worldly wise Aunt who sees through her brother’s spiritual facades. Gabriel starts out living a wanton life, then is “saved” and becomes a great preacher. Deborah, the raped woman prayed for him and supported him at his lowest. He marries her in an act of both gratitude and condescension, as no one else will have her. It is a childless marriage and grows cold. Gabriel’s affair with Esther leads to a child. She goes away to have the child with money stolen from Deborah, dies in childbirth, as does the child in his youth–the first Roy (for Royal), named by Esther remembering what Gabriel said he wanted to name his son. Gabriel lives with deep guilt for what he has done and the deaths that resulted, and his deception of now-deceased Deborah. Elizabeth’s prayer recalls the loveless aunt who rescued her from growing up in a brothel, parting her from her father, her flight and affair with Richard who gets her with child, then commits suicide after being arrested for being Black at the wrong place and time. Through Florence she meets and marries Gabriel, who sees the marriage as a kind of atonement for his sin. But he never loves Elizabeth’s child, John like their own son, also named Roy.

The third part begins with John on the floor experiencing a vision that recalls the hostility of his father toward him, his hatred of his father’s religion and struggle with the weight of his sins, and finally, “going through” to blessed salvation, bringing rejoicing from all the saints, and brotherly comfort from Elisha. But Gabriel is yet harsh and disbelieving. One cannot help if he resents the grace he sees in John’s experience that he has never certainly known for himself, for he could never live with Elizabeth joyfully, but only oppressively. There is a lot of guilt here, that centers around Gabriel, but also may reflect the version of Christianity Baldwin experienced. Much of that guilt is experienced around sexuality, even the awakening desires both Elisha and John experience. The alternatives seem to be ecstatic release in prayer at the altar, rebellion via a flight to the secular city, or a stern and censorious form of religion.

One wonders where all this will end up for John, who seems a younger version of the author, caught between the angry step-father and the caring older “brother” (is he more than that, reflecting Baldwin’s homosexual orientation?). Baldwin never takes us beyond that single day in John Grimes life, yet it appears that the day is the first step into a greater freedom that Gabriel can only resent but never know.

Review: Native Son

Native Son, Richard Wright. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989 (first published in 1940).

Summary: The story of Bigger Thomas, whose unpremeditated murder of Mary Dalton and second murder covering up the first, fires rage and fear in Chicago, and in a strange way gives meaning to a young man who felt himself imprisoned in Chicago’s Black Belt.

This is an uncomfortable book to read from the moment Bigger Thomas wakes up until the last pages. It is uncomfortable to view the rat-infested tenement room a family of four share, where Bigger’s first act is to kill a giant rat with a pan.

It is uncomfortable to hear Bigger’s mother nag him about going to the job set up by the relief program. He already has a record for theft, some of which he’s involved his girlfriend Bessie in.

It’s uncomfortable to hear him plot to rob a white jeweler with his three friends. Then when one doesn’t show up on time, he nearly slits his throat in anger.

It’s uncomfortable to go to the Daltons and be treated so well by the family and other household staff. Mr. Dalton has an interest in the companies operating the tenement housing Bigger lives in, confining Blacks to one area of south Chicago known as the Black Belt. He also gives lots of money to charities for the uplift of Blacks and employs people recommended by the relief agency who sent Bigger–an uncomfortable tension of interests that emerges as the story unfolds.

It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger on his first chauffeuring job, supposedly taking Mary Dalton, the Dalton’s only daughter to a lecture, but in reality to a rendezvous with a Communist lover, Jan. We sense Bigger’s discomfort as he takes them to a south side restaurant to eat “his kind of food,” and invited to socialize with them while proselytized into the Communist cause. We sense his discomfort as Jan drives with all of them in the front seat, then as they drink while he drives.

It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger having to help the drunken Mary into the house, and up to her room, getting her to bed, only to have her blind mother come in to this incriminating scene. We sense his discomfort as he tries to silence her so her mother won’t discover his presence and think Mary asleep in a drunken stupor, and when Mrs. Dalton leaves, to find he has asphyxiated her and she is dead.

It’s uncomfortable to witness Bigger’s desperation which leads him to stuff her in the trunk she’s taking to Detroit, to haul it to the basement and stuff her body into the coal furnace, hacking off her head so it would all fit, and then feeding the fire but fearing to remove the ashes for what he might find.

It’s uncomfortable as Mary’s disappearance becomes known to watch Bigger deflect suspicions toward Jan while involving his girlfriend in a ransom plot, ultimately telling her what he’s done, and then as Mary’s bones are found in the furnace ashes, fleeing with Bessie to an abandoned building where he has sex with her then kills her with a brick and throws her down an airshaft, where she did not immediately die.

It’s uncomfortable to see the police cordon close around him, then the final futile efforts to elude capture. It’s uncomfortable to hear the racist vitriol, of crowds who would lynch him and a prosecutor who charges him with rape as well as murder.

It’s uncomfortable to hear him tell his communist attorney, Mr. Max, how, for a brief moment, when he killed, he felt his most free and alive, how in these moments, he found meaning, a momentary escape from the destiny to which his birth and race, in his own mind, had imprisoned him.

His relationship with his attorney, who made an impassioned plea before the court for his life, is the one shining moment. Someone who asked him questions, and listened, and treated him as a man. No one understands more of his life than this man. But he is not a confessor. While Bigger tells the truth of what he had done, there was no remorse, no repentance.

We want to argue that Bigger could have made different choices. Yet the sense is of a human being trapped–in a tenement, into reliance on white charity, in an awkward social situation with two people with no clue who “mean well,” in Mary Dalton’s bedroom where no good explanation could be made for his presence. We’re rightly horrified by the murders, but also at the logic by which Bigger finds meaning in them.

We’re left uncomfortable with social structures that the execution of this young killer will not change. We’re left uncomfortable with the thought of how many other Biggers lurk in such structures–also wanting to do things with their lives, also questing for meaning, perhaps in distorted ways that will end badly for them and others. And this is as it should be. A minister friend of mine once remarked that he believed the gospel not only offered comfort to the disturbed but also disturbed the comfortable. This book does the latter. Don’t read it if you want to remain in comfort.

Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927).

Summary: The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest.

It is in the time when the United States took possession of lands in the American Southwest that were formerly part of Mexico. Two Catholic missionaries from France working in Sandusky, Ohio, Fathers Joseph Vallant and Jean Marie LaTour are assigned to establish a new diocese in New Mexico, with LaTour being named as Bishop of the new diocese. Much of this work revolves around the relationship between these two men, who were friends from boyhood, and the respective gifts of each, both necessary to the work to which they’d been assigned. Vallant, less physically attractive and refined is utterly passionate in his care for the people of the new diocese, often going on extended journeys, and on several instances, becoming ill and nearly dying, only to be retrieved and cared for by LaTour.

By contrast, LaTour is the more reserved and intellectual and astute in his perceptions, knowing when to be patient and how to exercise his authority without being authoritarian. He is the architect of the diocese, both in identifying where to expand and recruiting new priests and nuns to the work, and in fulfilling his vision of a Midi Romanesque cathedral that would fit the desert landscape in which it would be set. Eventually, to his sadness and Vallant’s joy, he sends Vallant to Colorado and the mining camps to establish a new diocese, gaining the title of archbishop but parting with his mission partner of forty years.

Cather portrays the arduous work of these men. We trace the year long journey from Ohio to Galveston aboard riverboat and ship, losing most of their baggage in a shipwreck. Then comes an overland journey across Texas to Santa Fe. We experience the dangers of this land, from getting lost in the trackless hills as occurs to LaTour at one point, to the lawless Buck Scales, from whom the priests are saved by his abused wife Magdalena, who warns them by sign that he intends to kill them as he has others. Scales is tried, hanged and Magdalena redeemed, in part through the aid of Kit Carson, with whom LaTour forges a relationship of great mutual respect.

Bishop LaTour must deal with both the Spanish history of his diocese and the native peoples within it. We see his skillful handling of Spanish priests whose practices differ and are loved by the people, sometimes waiting for them to pass, in other instances, as in Father Martinez, removing him when he refuses to repent from his position of repudiating celibacy in doctrine and practice, allowing Martinez’ schismatic movement to die with him. He unsuccessfully takes issue with his friend Carson over what was, in the end, futile removal of the Navajo people. Cather portrays a churchman who both operates within the realities of the American occupation of the land while prioritizing the spiritual mission and its care for all the people within its diocese.

As in her other works, Cather paints with words as in this passage where LaTour shows the mission-minded Vallant the hill with rock that is perfect for LaTour’s envisioned cathedral:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

The outing exposes the differences between the two men with “Father Vallant…still wondering why he had been called home from saving souls in Arizona and why a poor missionary Bishop should care so much about a building.” Yet both are necessary–Father Vallant saving souls and Bishop LaTour planting gardens and fruit orchards and establishing, in the best sense, the institutions and spiritual center of the Church in this outpost diocese, eventually to become an archdiocese through the labors of these two men.

From beginning to the end of this work when death indeed comes for the archbishop, this is a work of understated beauty, whether in capturing the partnership of these two men, their long faithfulness in to their mission, or the peoples and landscape where all this played out. In it, in contrast to works like O Pioneers! or My Antonia, one sees two strong male characters, also pioneers, but in a very different setting, showing Cather’s artistic range.