An Extraordinary Tale of Ordinary People

Lucy Dabrowski

Willa Cather, Shadows on the Rock (Vintage Classics, 1931)

I once read an article claiming that Shadows on the Rock was one of Willa Cather’s weakest novels. The arguments were numerous, chiefly that the characters are flat or implausible and the story lacks real plot. On the whole, the novel was summed up as simply mediocre. I recalled this account last month when I finally had the chance to read the novel for myself.

Shadows on the Rock chronicles a year in the life of French colonists settled upon a rocky fortress surrounded by the seemingly infinite wilderness of seventeenth-century Canada. The narrative unfolds in the midst of Fall as Euclide Auclair stands atop the Cap Diamant, observing in anguish the departure of ships that weeks earlier bridged the gap between this desolate New World and his homeland. Every year as the ships disappear beyond the horizon, Auclair experiences a renewed sense of isolation, mourning his old life on the Quai des Célestins in Paris. Not so for his twelve-year-old daughter Cécile Auclair. For her and for most first generation Canadians this cold and solitary rock is home, and “not even the winter snows gave one a feeling of being cut off from everything. She was living in a world of twilight and miracles.” Shadows on the Rock is episodic in nature, detailing the everyday routines and seasonal traditions of Kébec’s residents, chiefly the Auclair household. From the mundane task of buying stores and making preserves for the winter, to the unpacking of the crèche from Aunt Clothilde, visiting the Reverend Mother at the Hotel Dieu, and devoting time to the care and education of Blinker and little Jacques, Cather delivers a comprehensive portrayal of life in the New World.

The story lacks any true semblance of drama or intrigue, at most providing glimpses of raids, the dangers of missionary life, and the possibility of peril at the hand of the elements, and these are rather negligible occurrences used to contrast with stories of domestic tranquility. Admittedly, this makes the novel appear somewhat slow and possibly even dreary. But ours is a culture obsessed with instant gratification and intolerant of stillness, so a calm read is not without merit; it has the power to supply a much-desired reprieve from the strains of everyday life.

Shadows on the Rock is not a plot-driven novel: it can be best described as an encyclopedia of characters such as is seldom found in literature. In one narrative Cather weaves together a myriad of types: creatures of habit secretly yearning for adventure; morally upright offspring of the depraved; devout religious seeking earthly glory; tyrannical men leading lives of self-mortification; the poor rich; men with mischievous eyes but noble hearts; and a vibrant array of holy martyrs and saints of the Catholic Church. Cather is not concerned with dramatizing events but with illuminating what extraordinary virtues can emanate from ordinary people leading simple lives. It is for this reason that the narrative is chiefly related through the eyes of regular folk like Euclide and Cécile, that the colonists show a strong preference for the humble Monseigneur de Laval over his materialistic successor Saint-Vallier, and that many of Cather’s marginal accounts honor the memory of real-life saints like Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Father Brébeuf and Noël Chabanel, renowned Canadian martyrs.

Though I have not yet had the pleasure of reading Willa Cather’s other works, I observed that many of them are traditionally set on the prairies of the nineteenth-century Midwest. Certainly the setting of Shadows on the Rock stems considerably from her convention, but it too arouses that same sense of despair and isolation often associated with prairie life. The one stark difference lies in the landscape and climate characteristic of the Kébec region, and Cather proves herself a master of personification even in this unfamiliar setting. The imagery in Shadows on the Rock relentlessly evokes a living and breathing entity: “an uncharted continent choked with interlocking trees … strangling each other in a slow agony,” and Kébec, “very much a mountain rock cunningly built over.” The seasons themselves appear as a set of characters, not solely triggering lifestyle modifications to accommodate the changing climate conditions, but complimenting—as affords their very nature—the troubles and joys experienced by the colonists year round. In the same way that winter—traditionally suggestive of sadness and despair—brings us the sad fate of Frichette and his brother-in-law, an ailing Bishop Laval, and Father Hector’s resolution never to return to France, so spring—the agent of hope and new life—returns from the distant North the Auclairs’ beloved Pierre Charron. 

While many of her contemporaries dedicated themselves to the subject of the Great Depression or the preceding years of immense prosperity, validating therein their own hopes and fears for the future, Cather traveled back to a time characterized by mass colonization and the subsequent alienation of entire societies. Among the themes of loss, loneliness, and isolation, which are considered rather modern in scope, Shadows on the Rock also explores the revival of subject matter such as family loyalty, the preservation of tradition, a skepticism of progress, the disparity between a New and Old World, religious devotion, and the sanctity to be found in living the simple life.

At the onset it seems that Cather’s personal voice percolates through the pages, a voice that persistently idealizes tradition over progress and shows preference for the honor of the Old World order above the arrogance of the new. While some would argue that such a notion resides at the core of the story, I believe that what Cather offers seventeenth-century French colonists is the opportunity for a unique reality within which conflicting forces coexist in harmony. In such a reality, it is equally justified for Mme Auclair to dedicate herself to routine and the perpetuation of tradition as a means of bringing together the past and future, as it is for Cécile to adopt new traditions of her own, like caring for and educating Jacques. The epilogue brings with it evidence that such in fact may have been Cather’s aim. In much the same way that the colonists first flocked to the Auclair household upon the slightest pretext because “the interior was like home to the French-born,” so they continue to do with as much zeal fifteen years later when Euclide finally disrupts the shadow of his Parisian shop by installing a display of seashells brought home by Jacques from his travels abroad. Cather does not promise Euclide a remedy for his sense of isolation; she physically gives him one in the person of Pierre Charron—the adventurous fur trader and first generation Canadian with the “good manners of the Old World, the dash and daring of the New.” It takes the death of his patron, Count Frontenac, to make Euclide’s idealized vision of France crumble, so that he is set free to put his trust in a new generation of men, the Canadians of the future.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel, particularly on account of that less than favorable review I once came across. The periodic appearance of French dialogue contributed an element of authenticity, giving the story a truly French-Canadian tone. And though not a Catholic herself, Cather offers an optimistic history of the Church that brought Christianity to the New World through acts of saintly devotion and absolute sacrifices for the faith. Beneath these stories there exists a spiritual subtext that praises the life that rejects material possessions and worldly glory; a simple life comprised of nothing more than domestic tranquility and selfless acts of love. Bishop Laval and the recluse of Montreal, Jeanne Le Ber, already possess such awareness; Count Frontenac never quite attains it, yearning for the King’s gratitude even onto death; while Father Hector and Saint-Vallier only gain it through suffering. It is solely for this reason that the character of Saint-Vallier is redeemed; when he returns to Kébec after a thirteen-year-long exile, he is no longer a courtier, but a humbled man finally prepared to serve.

Whether Cather’s inspiration for this story lay in her admiration for a city that so closely shadowed its motherland, or in her attempt to immortalize in Cécile and Euclide the type of relationship she shared with her own father who had passed away only years earlier, Shadows on the Rock was in all likelihood conceived with modest intentions.  However it developed into a profound piece of work, in my opinion deserving of greater recognition than it has received.

Lucy Dabrowski is a stay-at-home mom, part-time student, and full-time devotee of literature. She is currently completing a Publishing program at Ryerson University in Toronto.