Book 6 Chapter 1
Book VI: Doña Isabella
1. Don Antonio
Summary: Don Antonio Olivares—a wealthy Mexican ranchero (farmer) married to an American wife, Isabella, and with one grown daughter, Inez—is Bishop Latour’s foremost supporter in the cause of building a cathedral in Santa Fe. Latour and Vaillant enjoy the graceful hospitality of Olivares and his wife frequently. Around the turn of the new year, Olivares throws a great party at which he intends to announce his gift of a large donation toward the new cathedral. Unfortunately, not long after the party, Don Antonio dies (on Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Lent, which marked, in the Roman Catholic calendar until the Second Vatican Council, a 17-day period of preparation for that penitential season).
Analysis: Don Antonio is one of the novel’s wealthy characters who is presented in a positive light. Unlike most of the other wealthy characters we have seen to this point, Antonio is not a priest who has become wealthy in illegal or immoral ways (one need think only of Father Martínez to see the contrast); he is “a man of the world” (p. 175) who is intelligent and hard-working. Also, “[h]e was a man who cherished his friends” (p. 178). His planned donation to Latour’s cathedral fund is motivated as much by true friendship as by a desire to be involved in a great project: “Olivares was the sort of man who liked to help a friend accomplish the desire of his heart” (p. 179). Don Antonio’s characterization prevents readers from making the assumption that, in the world of Cather’s novel, wealth is necessarily bad. Material possessions, even money, are neutral in and of themselves; it is how they are used that matters, and Don Antonio uses his to care for his family, to please his friends and to invest in a project that will glorify God and bring beauty to the land he now calls home.
Doña Isabella, Antonio’s second wife, is presented as virtually an ideal wife: elegant, hospitable, charming, intelligent. The couple’s grown daughter, Inez, does not share her mother’s social graces, but sings beautifully and virtually lives the life of a cloistered nun. Overall, however, the Olivares family represents European elegance and sophistication in the often harsh environment of New Mexico. As Latour and Vaillant experience on numerous occasions, “It was refreshing to spend an evening with a couple who were interested in what was going on in the outside world, to eat a good dinner and drink good wine, and listen to music” (p. 177). These are worldly pleasures, it is true; but when enjoyed in moderation in the company of good and true friends, they seem, in Cather’s novel, to become almost sacramental—visible signs of an invisible grace (think also, for instance, of the delight Father Vaillant takes in cooking).
Another positive example of elegance and finery is found in the vestments that Father Vaillant’s sister and her nuns make for him. Latour reflects that he used to be embarrassed by the women’s work; but when he visited France, he found that the nuns valued both the work and Vaillant’s letters. One of the nuns told Latour that the letters and the seamstress work mad her feel connected to the work Vaillant and Latour are doing in New Mexico: “I can feel that I am there” (p. 182). This reflection thus not only emphasizes the value that material goods can have when used for a proper purpose, but also revisits the novel’s ongoing concern with connections: how they are forged and maintained, and how they sustain those who are bound together. This aspect becomes more explicit immediately after Latour’s reverie. As he looks around at the wide range of people present at Don Antonio’s party—from the priests to the soldiers, from Kit Carson to the rancheros—Latour “was thinking of how each of these men not only had a story, but seemed to have become his story” (p. 182). Latour’s recognition once again confirms his worth as a priest, a representative of Christ. It also may allude to the New Testament’s teaching about the nature of true Christian community: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, KJV). Latour has clearly been succeeding in his appointed task of nurturing community in the New World, bringing people together around a common life (as symbolized in this latter half of Cather’s novel by his dream of a new cathedral). This new kind of true community is not (and never will be) fully realized, to be sure; consider the past experiences of Don Manuel Chavez, related near the close of this chapter. When he was a youth, Chavez went out to hunt Navajos—merely “a form of sport” in the days before the American occupation (p. 184). Even now, years later after his days as a raider, Chavez counts himself “a Martínez man” (p. 185)—meaning his sympathies and loyalties lay with the deposed priest of Taos—and he only attends Don Antonio’s party “in compliment to Señora Isabella; he hated to spend an evening among American uniforms” (p. 186). Nevertheless, he is present. His story, as well as the story of all the others in attendance, are part of Latour’s story now. They are connected, one to the other, and all to the land.