Book 1 Chapter 1
Book I: The Vicar Apostolic
1. The Cruciform Tree
Summary: In 1851, Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant, his friend from childhood, arrive in Santa Fe to begin their ministry, only to be rejected by the local priests. They claim they are under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango, and they do not honor Latour’s credentials. Latour must make the three-thousand-mile journey by horseback to “Old Mexico” to consult with the Bishop himself. At the end of a long journey down the wrong trail, Father Latour’s mare finally scents water; and the new bishop makes his way into the settlement of Agua Secreta (Hidden Water), where he is greeted promptly by a young Christian girl.
Analysis: The rugged, unforgiving landscape of New Mexico dominates this chapter just as it dominates much of the novel, and Cather describes it with a precise eye—even in its monotony: “One could not have believed that in the number of square miles a man is able to sweep with the eye there could be so many uniform red hills” (p. 17). At one point, Latour closes his eyes against “the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle” (p. 18)—the conical hills, speckled with conical juniper trees—and the description may take on theological overtones: “omnipresence,” of course, is a classical description of one of God’s attributes, and the triangle is a common Christian symbol for the Trinity. Even in this majestic but desolate land, the text may be suggesting, God is present, and “small miracles” may be found. And, indeed, Latour’s discovery (more accurately, Latour’s horse’s discovery) of Agua Secreta (a name also not without theological connotations, as Jesus refers to himself as “living water,” John 4 and John 7) must seems like a miracle to the parched priest: “in the midst of that way ocean of sand, was a green thread of verdure and a running stream…” (p. 24). Biblically minded readers may recollect the prophet Isaiah’s description of the blossoming wilderness (see Isa. 35:1-2). Cather’s treatment of the landscape, then, mirrors the content of what will become Latour’s ministry in the New World, the discovery and nurture of miracles (see I.4, p. 50); and the raising of the Cross in the wilderness, even as the cruciform tree in this chapter represents Christ for Latour (p. 18).
Cather begins developing Latour as a character by means of direct characterization. We are supposed to learn about Latour by his appearance: “A young priest, at his devotions; and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man…” (p. 18). The immediately subsequent enumeration of Latour’s character traits—intelligence, generosity, elegant, and especially his “courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree… and the God whom he was addressing” (p. 19)—may put readers in mind of Saint Francis of Assisi, another man of God known for his generosity of spirit and his “courtesy” and close communion with nature, with beasts, and with God. (Additionally, this subtle linking of Latour with Saint Francis reminds readers that Francis was the subject of the missing El Greco painting sought by de Allande in the Prologue. De Allande wants the new bishop to look for a painted or “dead” image of Saint Francis, whereas Latour will, simply by going about his work, become a living image of the famous saint himself!)