Book 7 Chapter 1
Book VII: The Great Diocese
Chapter 1: The Month of Mary
Summary: The United States’ annexation of southern New Mexico and Arizona (the Gadsen Purchase, ratified in 1854, acquired in order to facilitate a southern route for the transcontinental railroad) gives Bishop Latour much more territory over which to be responsible. In 1858, Father Vaillant goes to California to settle disputed ecclesiastical boundaries with Mexican bishops; on his return trip home, he contracts malaria, and is brought back to Santa Fe to recuperate in Latour’s house. His convalescence gives Vaillant the chance to observe, as he has not been able to for many years, the month of May as a month of special devotion to the Virgin Mary. One outcome of this devotion is his decision to “hunt for lost Catholics” toward Tucson as soon as he is healthier. Latour is not happy at the thought of letting his vicar travel so far away, but grants Vaillant permission to “follow the duty that calls loudest.”
Analysis: Vaillant and Latour’s conversations regarding Vaillant’s future work take place in Latour’s garden. Cather develops the garden as a metaphor for the work of the two priests in the New World: both the work they have already done, and the work that remains. For instance, the garden’s fruit trees, mere “dry switches” six years previously, are now grown (p. 200): they are “yielding fruit” (p. 201), even as the Academy of Our Lady of Light, established at the same time the trees were planted, is “yielding fruit” metaphorically. Similarly, the garden will have “more than a hundred lotus blossoms” come summer, “all from five bulbs that [Latour] put into [his] valise in Rome” (p. 205). From small, humble beginnings, through careful cultivation and “boldly plan[ing] for the future” (p. 201), the two priests’ mission has become fruitful (as we readers have seen for ourselves—for Cather is emphasizing through symbolism what she has already shown us—in such events as Madame Olivares’ admission of her true age in the previous chapter, or in the rescue and restoration of Magdalena, who appears briefly at the end of this chapter, to remind us of how far she has come thanks to the priests’ efforts: “Who would think, to look at her now, that we took her from a place where every vileness of cruelty and lust was practiced!,” p. 210).
May is the month in which Vaillant “had been given grace to perform the hardest act of his life,” leaving his home and family to embark on his missionary work with Latour (p. 204). His decision, therefore, to journey even further out into regions unknown marks a notable development of his character. Readers will remember that, in the early portions of the novel, Vaillant expressed a desire to stay in Santa Fe with the bishop—indeed, he even hoped not to be doing missionary work his entire life: “One day,” he told Latour then, “you will release me, and I will return to some religious house in France and end my days in devotion to the Holy Mother. For the time being, it is my destiny to serve Her in action. But this is far enough, Jean.” Latour replied, presciently, “Who knows how far?” (p. 41). Who, indeed? For now Latour, still out of devotion to Mary, is seeking release from Latour, not to return to France, but to set out for the “wild frontier” (p. 207).