Shadows on the rock

by Willa Cather

Hardcover, 1931




New York, A. A. Knopf, 1931.


"Superbly written, with that sensitivity to sunset and afterglow that has always been Miss Cather's." --The New York Times Willa Cather wrote Shadows on the Rock immediately after her historical masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like its predecessor, this novel of seventeenth-century Quebec is a luminous evocation of North American origins, and of the men and women who struggled to adapt to that new world even as they clung to the artifacts and manners of one they left behind. In 1697, Quebec is an island of French civilization perched on a bare gray rock amid a wilderness of trackless forests. For many of its settlers, Quebec is a place of exile, so remote that an entire winter passes without a word from home. But to twelve-year-old Cécile Auclair, the rock is home, where even the formidable Governor Frontenac entertains children in his palace and beavers lie beside the lambs in a Christmas créche. As Cather follows this devout and resourceful child over the course of a year, she re-creates the continent as it must have appeared to its first European inhabitants. And she gives us a spellbinding work of historical fiction in which great events occur first as rumors and then as legends--and in which even the most intimate domestic scenes are suffused with a sense of wonder.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member AMQS
What a lovely book. This book might have continued forgotten at the bottom of my teetering book pile if it hadn’t been for the American Author Challenge, when someone mentioned it, and wondered if I had it buried somewhere. It was a perfect time to read it, too, as we traveled to Quebec last
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summer and fell in love with it. I have decided that I love Willa Cather. What I love best about her writing are her beautiful descriptions of the landscapes. She describes the light, the colors, the nuances, and the changing seasons so vividly, so lovingly, the landscapes become omnipresent beings as integral to the story as the characters, and her characters interact with their environment with awe and reverence, and in this case, love.

Ms. Cather tells the story of a widowed apothecary who followed Count de Frontenac when he was sent to Quebec to serve as Governor General at the direction of French King Louis XIV. While M. Auclair misses his homeland, his 12 year-old daughter Cecile loves Quebec with her whole heart. The book follows Cecile over the course of the year 1697. I found the historical details fascinating – many colonists subsisting on frozen lard and smoked eels throughout the long winter; the more prepared colonists cultivating lettuce and other greens as long as possible in their basements; the markets selling specialties from each proprietor’s native region; the fervent adherence to familiar customs and religious practices at the very edge of wild country.

Ms. Cather writes of the immigrant experience with great compassion in her novels. This book opens with M. Auclair staring down the empty St. Lawrence River – empty because the last of the ships has sailed for France, and as none will return until June, the inhabitants of Quebec are completely cut off from home for several months. Later in the book the ships return, an event so exciting the entire town gathers excitedly hours before the first sail is sighted in the channel near the Ile d’Orleans, and the townspeople are overcome. I read that section in tears, swept up in the emotion, relief and excitement of this most momentous day. The Auclairs embody the immigrant experience – a piece of their hearts remaining in France, and a cultivated devotion and loyalty to their new, beautiful, brutal homeland. I LOVED this book!
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LibraryThing member gbill
I read this book while traveling in Quebec and recommend it. There are many shocking bits, but Cather states them simply and they are true to life in 17th century Quebec: kids drinking wine or brandy, the belief that the Indians were savages, eating cold grease to get through winter, cauterizing
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the arm to treat a leg injury, jars of pulverized human skulls at the apothecary shop, vows of absolute silence, cannibalism, torture, ....

And yet, the hardiness of the people enable them to endure so far from France; some excerpts:

"Why, the priest wondered, were these fellows always glad to get back to Kebec? Why did they come at all? Why should this particular cliff in the wilderness be echoing tonight with French songs, answering to the French tongue? He recalled certain naked islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; mere ledges of rock standing up a little out of the sea, where the sea birds came every year to lay their eggs and rear their young in the caves and hollows; where they screamed and flocked together and made a clamor, while the winds howled around them, and the spray beat over them. This headland was scarcely more than that; a crag where for some reason human beings built themselves nests in the rock, and held fast. ... A little group of Frenchmen, three thousand miles from home, making the best of things, - having a good dinner. He decided to go down and join them".

"These coppers, big and little , these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days, - the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life".

"A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world than this; to be pulling Jacques on her sled, with the tender, burning sky before her, and on each side, in the dusk, the kindly lights from neighbors' houses".

"There was something in Saint-Vallier's voice as he said this which touched Auclair's heart; a note humble and wistful, something sad and defeated. Sometimes a neighbour whom we have disliked a lifetime for his arrogance and conceit lets fall a single commonplace remark that shows us another side, another man, really; a man uncertain, and puzzled, and in the dark like ourselves".

I'm told the title of the book is derived from a sundial in a Quebec seminary courtyard which reads "Dies nostri quait umbra", or, "Our days as if a shadow" (Chronicles 29:15); that's pretty cool too.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
Cather, best known for her portrayals of the American West, relates the story of a widowed 17th century apothecary and his daughter living in Quebec. Readers are treated to wonderful descriptions of the place and period with insights into the church (Catholic Church) and politics of the period. I
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especially enjoyed reading about Count Frontenac for whom the famed hotel in Quebec City is named. Although the story refers to the chateau in which the governor (Count Frontenac) resided, it was not the modern-day Chateau Frontenac. I also found the apothecary to be an interesting person. Although he was a traditionalist in many ways, he recognized the benefits of some more modern treatments while doubting the usefulness of others. The church seems to be of central importance to those on the French Canadian frontier. I found the title embedded in a scene in which Cecile and Pierre Charron take a short trip downriver. It is later implied in a scene as the Count is dying. I'm still pondering the imagery of the title. The characters are portrayed well in this short gem. There is not really an over-arching plot unless it is the forging of a life in a new country, but the descriptions and characters make this work a true literary gem.
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LibraryThing member vpfluke
This novel was a very pleasant read. It is laid in colonial Quebec, about which we seldom read. Cecile lives with her father Jacques, a pharmacist, his only child, and her mother is deceased. We are taken through the rigors of life, a long winter, but also the relationships of people with each
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other and with the government and church. We see the distant relationship with France, the mother country, but we can see Quebec as its own unique place coming into being. It is a fairly gentle novel, and as it is tld from the perspective of a twelve year old, it doesn't always reach deep into adult concerns.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
1079 Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather (read 20 Sep 1970) I found this a beautiful book. Heavy on sentiment, plotless, but it touched me greatly. It is the story of an apothecary in Quebec in 1697 and 1698--the latter date is the year Count Frontenac died. Bishop Laval and his successor,
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Saint-Vallier, are in the story. Quebec has 2000 people. One has the idea that the book is carefully researched, and is as good a portrayal of Quebec in 1697 as is possible. I was struck by the statement "You see, there are all those early memories, one cannot get another set; one has but those." I am sure the early memories of Nebraska were prominent in Willa Cather's mind. (And all my early memories are bound up in some 320 acres of land in Sections 9 and 10 of Westphalia Township and never can any other place take their place.) The importance of communication with France for these Quebec residents is well brought out, but also that Quebec was a stable life is a prominent feature of this so well-written book. There does not seem a false note in it--I suppose because I know nothing of French Quebec. A delight.
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LibraryThing member BevWel
A fine novel of life in Quebec City beginning 1697. Some of the story takes place on Holy Family Street. The marriage of my 6th gr.grandparents took place in a church on that street. I loved reading about life as they probably lived it. In 2003, my daughter and I visited this wonderful city. Our
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family owned a rock house at the bottom of the street mentioned. Those of my blood lived, married and died in that area. Touching!
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LibraryThing member janeajones
In that this novel is set in 17th c. Quebec, it's rather anomalous for Willa Cather. I don't really know what her affinity for the setting or people was. However, it's a gentle, if gritty, picture of life for an apothecary, Euclide Auclair, and his motherless daughter, Cecile. The novel is steeped
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in French colonialism, Roman Catholicism, and the hardships and joys of life in a settling into a new life in Canada. The book is character and environment, not plot driven, but it is meant to savored. Cather evokes the people and the sense of place with skill and grace.
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LibraryThing member mahallett
About colonial Quebec.
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A gentle, delightful tale of life in 17th century Kebec (Quebec City), told primarily from the perspective of the apothecary's daughter, 12-year old Cécile Auclair, who cares for her father following her mother's death. Cécile is fascinated by stories from the many visitors to their shop, and she
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spends much of her time with a little boy whose mother, a local prostitute, pays scant attention to him. Religion and the lives of the saints, especially those from Canada, are of great interest to the people of Kebec, and in the pages of the book the reader is introduced to many of their histories and to other real-life figures, several of whom feature in the story. This was a real pleasure to read, and it would be wonderful for a break from whatever heavy reading one may be doing.
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LibraryThing member nossanna
This is a wonderful book in the style of Death Comes For the Archbishop, but set in French Canada in the 1600s. Very atmospheric, capturing life in an outpost of a strange land, Catholic influence, and having part of your heart and identity still in France. This will be a book that I read over
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again from time to time for it's beautiful writing.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This novel, set in 1697 Quebec follows a year in the life of 12 year old Cecile and her father, apothecary Auclair. It gave me a real feel for what it might have been like to leave your home for the New World with the possibility of never returning to go live in an unknown and untamed wilderness,
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all the deprivations you would suffer, but the adventures and discoveries as well.

While I enjoyed the book, I felt that it had a very YA feel to it (not my favorite genre), although it made me really want to visit Quebec, where I've never been. I would recommend for fans of The Little House on the Prairie series who have grown up a bit.

3 stars
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LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
Cather brings late 17th century Quebec alive in this richly imagined story of a young girl coming of age in Canada. It's one of my Cather favorites.
LibraryThing member lamour
This is a very detail description of what life may have been like living in Quebec City during the latter part of the 17th Century. The arrival of the supply ships from France every spring is an important event for the inhabitants of the colony bringing in a fresh supply of trade goods and loading
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the furs and other items created in the colony.

The narrative follows the daily activities of thirteen year old Cecile Auclair and her father, the local apothecary who is known for his progressive medical knowledge. An example of this is his hostility to using bleeding as a cure for disease and infection. The Catholic religion is extremely important to the characters and the colony and plays an important role in the lives and decisions of the characters both fictional and historic.

A typical Cather read with incredible detailed descriptions of nature, characters and the early 16th Century Quebec City.
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