Hidden Treasure: Shadows on the Rock

Willa Cather, Shadows on the Rock (1931)


In Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather departed from the prairie narratives for which she is most well known to write a historical novel about late seventeenth century Quebec. Her central characters are a French apothecary who longs to return home, but is bound by love of his patron, Count Frontenac; and the apothecary’s young daughter Cecile, who feels deeply connected to the new country of Canada. Around them come and go a wonderful array of characters, from Frontenac himself, to the two very different bishops who rule the spiritual life of the Catholic province, to an intrepid young trapper, to a prostitute’s child that Cecile has befriended.

At the risk of gushing, I’ll say that I simply loved everything about this book. I loved the descriptions of the city, and the details of an apothecary’s life and work in this long-ago time. I loved Cecile and her father and sympathized with their dilemma of whether to stay in the new country or return to the old. I loved the glimpses into other characters’ lives, whether in cloister or trapper’s hut or castle. I savored every moment spent with them and was sorry to leave them at the end.

Notre Dame des Victoires

Don’t go into Shadows on the Rock expecting anything in the way of an exciting plot. The novel generally follows the course of a year in the city, starting from the significant time in late autumn when the last ships leave for France and the colonists are left on their own for the winter. It meanders from one character and incident to another, in a series of vignettes that together build a rich portrait of a place and time. Another book by Cather that I also read recently, her final novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl, followed a similar pattern but with sometimes awkward or clumsy results (perhaps due to the author’s health problems in later life that made it difficult for her to write). In Shadows on the Rock, on the other hand, I felt that Cather was absolutely in control of her material, creating a integrated if impressionistic work of art in which no word is wasted or out of place. Passage after passage moved me with its beautiful language that lifted the novel into the realm of poetry:

She put the sled-rope underneath her arms, gave her weight to it, and began to climb. A feeling came over her that there would never be anything better in the world for her 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. If the Count should go back with the ships next summer, and her father with him, how could she bear  it, she wondered. On a foreign shore, in a foreign city (yes, for her a foreign shore), would not her heart break for just this? For this rock and this winter, this feeling of being in one’s own place, for the soft content of pulling Jacques up Holy Family Hill into paler and paler levels of blue air, like a diver coming up from the deep sea.


The “rock” in winter

I was reminded of a book I also love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which also deals with a Catholic settlement in the New World (Spanish colonists in Peru), and has an equally luminous writing style. It’s ironic that Wilder’s book was a highly-acclaimed blockbuster, while Cather’s received tepid reviews, although it still sold well. In the four years between their publication dates (1927 and 1931) the Great Depression had hit, and socially engaged fiction was the fashion, not quiet, undramatic novels about backwaters of history. From a vantage point of years, though, Cather seems to me to be one of our most understatedly brilliant writers, and Shadows on the Rock one of her most masterful works.

This is also a frontier story, and gives insight into a part of our North American history that is worth knowing about. I’m eager now to visit Quebec City, that “rock” in the St. Lawrence river that became the foundation stone of a nation, and learn more about its fascinating blend of the old world and the new. After reading Cather’s magnificent novel, I feel that I have already been there in spirit.


6 thoughts on “Hidden Treasure: Shadows on the Rock

  1. Superb commentary on this. I have not yet read Willa Cather but I need to soon. As to the plot being slow, I am beginning to appreciate that more and more in book. I think that it allows others aspects of the writing to stand out.


  2. What a wonderful review, Lori! I've never been to Quebec, either, though we did visit Montreal about 20 years ago. I've also not read any Cather yet (I know, I know!). While not typical of her prairie literature, this sounds very much up my alley as far as historical fiction. Thank you for the recommendation; I'm putting it on my classics-to-read list.


    1. I have not read that one but I'm sure I will work my way through all of Cather eventually. I read A Lost Lady, Sapphira and the Slave Girl and Shadows on the Rock this year.


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