Published in America in 1931, Shadows on the Rock was one of Willa Cather’s later works, and one with, unusually, a historical setting. Set in seventeenth century Quebec City among the French settlers who struggle to survive the harsh winters, looking forward to the yearly arrival of ships from France bearing news and goods from home. There is not much of an actual plot as such; we follow instead the inhabitants of Quebec through one typical year – with an epilogue taking place fifteen years later. As with her novels of Pioneer life in the Nebraskan Prairies, in Shadows on the Rock, Cather examines the European immigrant experience, the pull of home, and the dawn of a new age.
“Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile his friends are everything.”
The novel opens in 1697, Euclide Auclair; apothecary and physician, has been in Quebec for eight years. As he stands on Cap Diamant, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River, watching as the last ship of the season returns to France, he silently longs to return to his native country himself soon. Euclide came to Quebec in the service of Count de Frontenac, the governor of the Quebec colony.
“After all, the world still existed, Auclair was thinking, as he stood looking up the way La Bonne Espѐrance had gone out only an hour ago. He was not of the proper stuff for a colonist, and he knew it. He was a slender, rather frail man of about fifty, a little stooped, a little grey, with a beard cut in a point, and a fair complexion delicately flushed with pink about his cheeks and ears. His blue eyes were warm and interested, even in reflection; – they often had a kindling gleam as if his thoughts were pictures. Except for this lively and inquiring spirit in his glance, everything else about him was modest and retiring. He was clearly not a man of action, no Indian fighter or explorer. The only remarkable thing about his life was that he had not lived it to the end exactly where his father and grandfather had lived theirs, – in a little apothecary shop on the Quai des Cѐlestins, in Paris.”
Two years earlier Euclide’s wife died, and so many of the general housekeeping duties have fallen to his twelve year old daughter Cécile, with whom Euclide enjoys a relationship of great sympathy and understanding . Cécile remembers virtually nothing of her home land, and loves Quebec and its people, the yearly routine punctuated by the arrival and departure of the French ships. Life is hard for these people, the winters long and gruelling, with many people only surviving by eating lard and smoked eels; others manage to grow a few vegetables through the earth floor of their basements.
Cécile is a kind hearted girl; she enjoys caring for her father and for some of the less fortunate members of the community. One of the people who visit the Auclair home regularly for a little soup is Blinker is a poor disabled man, who Cécile’s mother had been charitable to. However, it is six year old Jacques, the neglected son of a local prostitute for whom Cécile feels particular concern. Jacques (his feelings like so many similar young boy Cather characters before him) is awed by Cécile and her father, their home of kindness is unlike anything he has known. When Cécile is sent a nativity set by her aunt in France, Jacques shyly adds his precious carved beaver to the scene, a prized gift from one of his mother’s sailor clients.
The church plays a huge role in the colony and two Bishops with different approaches minister to the people of Quebec; Bishop Laval, a kindly ageing Churchman, and Bishop Saint-Vallier, a younger man, of poorer judgement, who Auclair describes as “less like a churchman than a courtier.” Saint-Vallier looks down on Laval, managing to undo much of the good the elder man had brought to the management of the Parish and the education system of the colony over a twenty year service.
Pierre Charron is a hunter and fur trader, and a great friend of the Auclair’s, Cécile is delighted whenever he appears, with his stories of the great wildernesses. When summer comes Pierre takes Cécile on a trip to Île d’Orléans to visit a family of friends, Cécile is excited to be taking a trip down the river, and visiting a place she had only ever heard of. Once there, the reality of the family’s shabby home appals her and she longs to return to her own well-ordered little home in Quebec.
Change is heralded by the coming again of the ships, news from France, and the declining health of the count. Fifteen years later, we are given a lovely glimpse of the life now lived by some of these people as the new century is under way.
“The glorious transmutation of autumn had come on: all the vast Canadian shores were clothed with a splendour never seen in France; to which all the pageants of all the kings were as a taper to the sun.”
This is a wonderful novel, Cather’s writing remains as atmospheric and nostalgic here as in her novels of the Nebraskan prairies. Her descriptions of light, colour, the cramped homes and Canadian landscapes are just lovely. This is yet another Cather novel which will live long in my memory.