I wasn’t entirely expecting to put these two books side by side in my own reading, but both sort of came up in their own way in my selection process. I knew the basics of the Willa Cather novel going in, so I probably internalized the Louise Erdrich novel’s plot as well as I chose.
But not only do these novels include a Catholic priest as their central figure, but they also involve that priest working in the American (Mid)West and specifically ministering to Native Americans. So I have to believe that not only did I connect these books, but also that Louise Erdrich is responding either directly to the Willa Cather novel or to the tradition within which Willa Cather is writing.
There’s something about the American landscape that inspires Catholic priests (often Jesuits) to want to engage. There’s also something deeply sinister about it. In some texts, like Brian Moore’s Black Robe or Cabeza de Vaca’s memoirs (a Spanish conquistador and not a priest, but who had a priest in tow), there is a kind of evangelical spirit that gleans supreme satisfaction from being presented with a challenge, with being rebuffed, and some cases being downright tortured as a consequence of the engagement. This not entirely different from the writing of Puritan clergy in terms of their sense of Native Americans, but there’s less of a tradition of conversion in these writings.
There’s even two very prominent examples of science fictions writers tying the trope to ministering to aliens (two that I can think of; more certainly): Marie Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.
So: what do we have here?
On the one hand I think Willa Cather’s writing is wonderful…clear…direct…even stark. And her sense of life and death, of the importance of event and story, makes for an interesting and engaging story. But when I put it next to the Louise Erdrich novel, I find that Erdrich’s prose is more capable, and her creation of character allows for more complexity and depth.
In the Cather novel, we find the archbishop struggling with the physical realities of his calling. And in the Erdrich, we find the priest struggling with the metaphysical realities and specifically the wages of sin.
I find the Cather priest to be more in line with tradition, and in general, along the lines of the arrogant priests we might find in previous examples (and specifically the science fiction examples too). And why, I appreciate the difficulty this leads him to and how that challenges him as a character, Erdrich’s novel not only presents her priest with significant challenges, but provides a space for those being ministered to talk back. There’s a scene in Cather where the priest shows up in a village and almost commands a fire be made to cook his dinner. But were the priest in Erdrich to do this, he would face the very real possibility of being ignored or being made to look ridiculous. I don’t think Erdrich’s novel can exist without Cather’s, and I liked hers more so. So I am left with an appreciation for both.