"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.
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!
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.
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.
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.