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.


Remember Them in Bonds: Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)


Willa Cather’s quiet, elegaic final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, is the only one of her novels set in her birthplace of rural Northern Virginia. Taking up events and characters from the author’s own family history, it gives us a window into a time and place where, not long before the Civil War, slaveowners and those with abolitionist sympathies co-existed uneasily.

The title characters are Sapphira Colbert, wife of a prosperous miller and daughter of a longtime slaveowning family; and Nancy, the mulatto daughter of the slave Sapphira has brought up and trained to be her personal maid. Sapphira has taken a dislike to Nancy because she unjustly suspects that she is dallying with her husband, and eventually an escalating sequence of events causes Nancy to leave for freedom in Canada. The final scene, one taken from Cather’s own memories and so the seed of the whole narrative, is of her return 25 years later.

This makes the plot sound much stronger and more unified than it is; in fact, it moves in a meandering fashion, with many detours, and nearly loses momentum altogether toward the end. What would seem to be the most interesting portion of all — how Nancy makes the huge transition from South to North and becomes a free woman — is skipped entirely, and the ending is rather anticlimactic. With a lesser writer, this unsatisfying trajectory would no doubt have bothered me much more. But I was so caught up in the scenes and characters that Cather portrayed with such compassion and insight that I didn’t mind much at all.

Many different viewpoints on the central issue of slavery are represented, even within a single character, creating a complex and multi-faceted picture of this moral dilemma. Henry Colbert, perhaps the novel’s moral center, is deeply conflicted: he personally does not wish to have slaves, yet accepts them as part of his wife’s heritage and tries to treat them as honorably as he can. He searches for answers in Scripture:

Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. — And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?

Sapphira’s attitude toward Nancy is hard to understand or forgive, and yet even she cannot be seen as wholly evil, but as one who has not managed to escape the limitations of her upbringing and culture. At the end, though, she does break through to an act of reconciliation that suggests change is possible. If we are all in bonds, Cather suggests, we are all working our own way to freedom. Wrong as it is to think that we can “own” another human being, it is equally wrong to imagine that this outer form of slavery is the only kind. Is our task perhaps to transform our bonds of intolerance and distrust into bonds of love?

The language of the book will be somewhat startling to a modern reader, as it freely uses terms that have become derogatory when applied to black people — not only in the mouths of the characters, which makes sense for historical accuracy, but also in the narration, which does not seem so necessary. Certain remarks are also made that apply stereotypical judgments to people of color, and it’s not clear whether these embody the prejudices of the author or only of her characters. Certainly, they are mild in comparison to the opinions held by most people during the time of the novel’s setting and even during the time of its writing, yet they still strike a discordant note that I regretted.

In spite of this, once again Cather has impressed me with her rich portrayal of character and setting, and her thought-provoking approach to questions of the heart and spirit. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is perhaps not the strongest of her works, but it is still a rewarding read. Thanks to Heavenali and the Willa Cather Reading Week for inspiring me to pick it up.

Classics Club List #29


Words and Pictures: A Lost Lady

He did not think of these books as something invented to beguile the idle
hour, but as living creatures, caught in the very behaviour of living,
— surprised behind their misleading severity of form and phrase. He was
eavesdropping upon the past, being let into the great world that had
plunged and glittered and sumptuously sinned long before little Western
towns were dreamed of.

Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (1923)

Image: Man Reading by John Singer Sargent

Literary Pilgrimages: Willa Cather’s grave site

On a bleak winter afternoon in early December, I set out to find Willa Cather’s grave at the Old Meeting House in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire. By her own wish, the author was laid to rest near the site where she had often spent the autumn months and worked on many of her novels, including My Antonia.

After a few mishaps due to my confusion of the towns of Jaffrey and Jaffrey Center, and the total lack of signage identifying the Meeting House (yes, this is New England — if you don’t already know where you’re going, you shouldn’t be here), I found the magnificent old building and its small burying ground that looks out onto a view of Mount Monadnock.

The oldest marked grave on this site dates from 1777, and many of the stones are centuries old. Often tall and narrow, they lean at odd angles in the frost-humped ground.

Willa Cather’s grave stands alone in a corner, facing away from the meeting house and toward the mountain (as most of the gravestones do). The stone has weathered quite a bit in the past sixty-odd years, and the inscription was not easy to read in the dim light.

According to a sign near the entrance, the grave of Cather’s companion Edith Lewis was very nearby, but I didn’t see a stone. I took a guess at the location and scraped away some snow, and there it was.

Just as I was about to leave, a ray of sun broke through the clouds as the Meeting House clock tolled two, and the words on the stone were illuminated.


December 7, 1876-April 24, 1947
The truth and charity of her great
spirit will live on in the work
which is her enduring gift to her
country and her people.
“…that is happiness, to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
From My Antonia


This still-unspoiled spot seems an appropriate resting place for Willa Cather, surrounded as it is by great natural beauty while also bearing witness to centuries of human striving and endeavor. I’m so glad that I finally made the pilgrimage to view it, and hope to return again to experience its peaceful spirit through the changing seasons.

Posted in honor of Willa Cather Reading Week, hosted by Heavenali 

Click here to view images of Cather in Jaffrey from the Willa Cather Archive
More information on Cather in Jaffrey, from the Willa Cather Archive