This book follows the efforts of two Catholic missionaries to establish a diocese in New Mexico in the mid to late 1800s. This is one of Cather’s absolute masterworks. The Professor’s House is the only one of her works that I would even consider putting above it and maybe not even that one. Cather’s writing is perhaps more stripped down than usual in terms of the prose; her description of the lives of these two men is sometimes spare, but always beautiful. The book is a really moving exploration of a lot of things; culture clash, male friendship, sincere faith, the workings of grace, all spread over a period of decades. The attempt to cover so much time means the book is episodic, in some ways more a connected series of short stories than a full novel, but the cumulative emotional impact is definitely that a novel in that, by the time this book winds its way to the final chapter, you feel like you have known these characters over a long, long time and care about them deeply. The title gives away the ultimate ending of the book and perhaps Cather chose to do this so that we always have a sense of time passing and the fragility of life in this place and period. We never forget the real humanity of these people and the ultimate fate of them. There are sections of the book I think I’ll never forget; a night spent stranded in a cave during a brutal storm, an encounter between a priest and a poor, mistreated servant woman, the ugly tenure of a greedy priest in a small pueblo and his ultimate fate. It’s deeply moving and, I reckon, not just for the faithful; it’s a vision of religion lived out at its most gracious and compassionate, a vision needed by both the faithful and the non-religious. It’s ultimately a warm, gracious book, full of deep empathy for its characters. It’s a true masterpiece, probably Cather’s last one and as a cap on a career with more than just one or two masterworks, it’s absolutely perfect in the peace it ultimately makes with the end of a life well lived, not something to be feared, after all. 4 stars.
tl;dr – emotionally effecting historical novel tells a story of grace, faith and compassion filled with human warmth; Cather’s last masterpiece and perhaps her best. 4 stars.