on March 12, 2002
I can but echo the other favorable reviews already here: this book is one of the most magical and delightful I know of. The society and civilization of Quebec in 1697 are so remote from our own that this story might as well be classified as fantasy, and it makes us entirely absorbed in the life and times of the people in the city. The story is told in the 3rd person and the central character is Cecile Auclair, a girl of 12, who lives with her widowed father, the town pharmacist.
I can well understand why some younger readers do not like it. It does indeed use some "French words," and there is not a lot of "action." Older readers will not mind this.
I was given this book in 1967. It was the senior Religion prize at my Jesuit high school. Readers should be aware that some appreciation for the viewpoints and beliefs of the Catholic Church, as it was in 1700, will help in savoring this book.
Willa Cather was a lapsed Protestant who wrote two of the greatest novels of the twentieth century dealing with Roman Catholic characters: this novel and the even greater DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP. This book is many things at once: a magnificent historical novel, a wonderful depiction of an adolescent growing up, and a wonderful evocation of a world that none of us can visit any longer. I do not know what possessed this midwesterner to write a novel about 17th century Quebec, but I am delighted that she did. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.
on April 17, 1998
Auclair, Cecile, Mother Juschereau, Pierre Charron, Jacques, Jeanne Le Ber, Comte de Frontenac, Bishop Lacal-- Just to say these names is akin to the satisfaction one experiences crunching a potato chip or savoring a delectable morsel of chocolate. There is a connection here between the written word and one's senses that is rarely found these days and when one does find it one desires to cherish the moment. Reading Cather makes me wistful for the past. I want to see the rock of Quebec. I want to live in a town that is flanked by wilderness where the only connection to "civilized" Europe is by the arrival and departure of massive sailing ships. I also want to believe as the people in the novel believe, in the mystic wonders of a religion that extols the virtues of deceased missionaries and cloistered hermitess'. In short Cather has convinced me to travel-- back in time if I could-- to see what Cecile and Auclair see or even what Cather herself saw that so moved her to write such a beautiful history. I only wish I could read more. Each character she introduces could be the protagonist of their own novel. A wonderful, simple, novel that makes you want to get up off your seat and go!
Willa Cather wrote "Shadows on the Rock"(1931) late in her novelistic career following her more famous book, "Death Comes for the Archbishop."(1927). As is the earlier book, "Shadows on the Rock" is influenced heavily by Cather's fascination with Catholicism (a religion she did not practice), her love of French civilization, and her interest in frontier places.
Cather's novel is set in the remote world of "New France", in French Quebec of 1697. The story tells of the early French settlers and of the reasons which impelled them to leave France in search of a new life in a difficult, harsh land. Located on a forbidding cliff on the St. Lawrence River, Quebec was inaccessible to incoming ships from France or elsewhere for all but the summer months.
The main characters in the novel are Cecile Aubade, a girl of twelve, and her father Euclide, an apothecary who came to Quebec together with its governor, Frontenac. Euclide's wife had died in Quebec two years before the story begins in 1697 and Cecile is showing as caring for her father, preparing his meals, cleaning the house, and tending the apothecary in has absence. The book is a coming-of-age story for Cecile, but it differs from the usual form of coming-of-age books in its quiet flow, stress on the ordinary world of everyday, and domesticity.
Cather gives the reader a picture of the life of old Quebec through the interactions of its people with Cecile and Euclide. We meet Frontenac and two rival bishops, the pious aged Bishop Laval, the much more worldy Bishop Saint-Vallier, and a host of clergy and nuns, some devoted to mysticism and solitude. Cather also shows the reader the more secular side of Quebec in many humble people, sellers at outdoor markets, sailors, refugees from France, and fur trappers, especially a man named Pierre Charron, whose heart was broken when his sweetheart took up the life of the cloister and rigorous spirituality. Cecile befriends a seven-year old boy named Jacques, the son of a prostitute. The friendship between Jacques and Cecile receives much attention in the book. Jacques is invited to the family's Christmas celebration and places a toy beaver, made for him by a sailor, in the family creche, symbolizing the coming of Christianity to the New World.
With the exception of a short epilogue, the book is told over the course of one year of Cecile's life in Quebec. This timeframe affords Cather the opportunity of describing Quebec and its environs in beautiful detail throughout the course of the year and to watch the maturation of Cecile and her increased devotion to Quebec. The story celebrates place, rootedness, religion, domesticity, and the value of living life in the everyday. Events in Quebec are contrasted with life in France with its wars and corruption. The even flow of Cather's book tends to mask some of the instances of torture and death practiced in the Old Regime that she describes.
This novel has always been recognized as static and unexciting. But Cather's recent biographer, Janis Stout, aptly describes the book as "luminous and significant." "Shadows on the Rock" was a best-seller when it appeared, even though the book received a poor critical reception. The critics found the book showed a tendency towards escapism from the modern world and its difficulties and an attitude of sentimentality and romanticism. The book has an underlying tone of irony. The world of old Quebec is portrayed with an aura of stability and permanence while the reader knows, as Cather knows, that fifty years after the time that the book ends, France will lose Quebec forever together with its possessions in the New World.
Although this book does not rank with Cather's best work, I was moved by it and found the criticisms overdone. In its emphasis on contentment, finding joy in the everyday, and the virtues of family life, "Shadows on the Rock" has something to teach today's world.
on September 26, 1998
Quebec 400 years ago was a small isolated community connected with France by historical tradition and religion. Though new "Kebec" tried to maintain its French continuity, the world was being changed by the freedom of the New World. Willa Cather presents a time capsule of a world gone. Although the story is told in an anecdotal style rather that with a central conflict, it manages to present an unified look of a community. Cather's storytelling is soothing, like a warm cup of hot chocolate on a cold Monday evening. It draws you in and relaxes you after a hard day of work. Incidently I recommended this book to my reading group of ll people and though all enjoyed it, probably only 2 people would have rated it less than 5 stars.
on January 10, 2014
I remember the first time I read Shadows on the Rock. I borrowed it from our local library. The next day, I became ill with a bad cold and needed to stay home. My husband was at work and our children were in school. I made a little fire in our fireplace and spent the day on the sofa reading this wonderful book. The story, the characters, and the setting are perfect. It is a book about beauty, loyalty and kindness. I take this book out of my little library every year around Christmastime and read at least part of it. It puts me in mind of how people should live.
on December 20, 2000
I have never been to Quebec city, but I feel like have because of this book. Reading the book I felt like I lived there. I knew what was around each corner and what was down the hill. It was years ago and I don't recall the story very well any more. But I still know the feel of the streets. A wonderful sense of place. This is one of the few books that has most stayed with me. I'll have to re-read it.
Probably, the people who found it boring had to read it for a class. That is a real problem. Even with a fine enthusiastic teacher, if you're forced to read a book, which you did not choose at that time, you are apt to find it boring. This is in fact a wonderful book.
Having grown up in the US, most of what I know about the North American colonial period reflects the British experience. While I knew that the French colonized what is now Canada, I knew very little about the culture of history of New France, as it was then known. While this book is limited in is scope (the bulk of the book covers a little more than a year, and centers around a small cast of characters), it still provides a glimpse into the French colonial experience. The long, fierce winters limit the colony's contact with France, and is a dominant feature in the life in the colony. While the colonists struggle to carve out a new life, they also try to maintain the comforts of home.
This book beautifully describes the city of Quebec and its surroundings at the end of the seventeenth century. There isn't a great deal of action here, but the story serves to introduce the reader to this outpost of France on the edge of the North American wilderness.