Saturday, January 28, 2012

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

During the last winter of her illness she lay much of the time on her red sofa, that had come so far out to this rock in the wilderness. The snow outside, piled up against the window-panes, made a grey light in the room, and she could hear Cecile moving softly about in the kitchen, putting more wood into the iron stove, washing the casseroles. Then she would think fearfully of how much she was entrusting to that little shingled head; something so precious, so intangible; a feeling about life that had come down to her through so many centuries and that she had brought with her across the wastes of obliterating, brutal ocean. The sense of “our way,”—that was what she longed to leave with her daughter. She wanted to believe that when she herself was lying in this rude Canadian earth, life would go on almost unchanged in this room with its dear (and, to her, beautiful) objects; that the properties would be observed, all the little shades of feeling which make the common fine. The individuality, the character, of M. Auclair’s house, though it appeared to be made up of wood and cloth and glass and a little silver, was really made of very fine moral qualities in two women: the mother’s unswerving fidelity to certain traditions, and the daughter’s loyalty to her mother’s wish.

I remember sitting in the airport in Flint, Michigan, talking to someone about why I like reading Willa Cather so much. I was introduced to her late. Unlike so many, I never read My Antonia in middle school, instead checking it out as an audiobook from my local library, a full-grown adult with a whim many years later. As I told my travel companion, that book, and O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and now Shadows on the Rock—they are all about the spaces that exist between people, and how the fleeting moments of true emotional connection that people experience are pulled tenuously over those spaces, stretching into the thinnest of gossamer filaments of memory, ready to snap with the merest tug, lost forever and forgotten.

Despite the passage above, in Shadows on the Rock, Cecile’s mother is already dead, and Cecile is living along with her father on the rock of Quebec, thousands of miles away from their actual home, 17th century France. Cecile’s father, Euclide Auclair, competes with Cecile as the primary character in the novel, an apothecary in the service of a French count, and a man who represents a transitory state between the encrusted civilization of the Old World and the burgeoning and blending civilization of the New.

He lived on the steep, winding street called Mountain Hill, which was the one and only thoroughfare connecting the Upper Town with the Lower. The Lower Town clustered on the strip of beach at the foot of the cliff, the Upper Town crowned its summit. Down the face of the cliff there was but this one path, which had probably been a main watercourse when Champlain and his men first climbed up it to plant the French lilies on the crest of the naked rock. The watercourse was now a steep, stony street, with shops on one side and the retaining walls of the Bishop’s Palace on the other. Auclair lived there for two reasons: to be close at hand where Count Frontenac could summon him quickly to the Chateau, and because, thus situated on the winding stairway connecting the two halves of Quebec, his services were equally accessible to the citizens of both.

These two halves of Quebec, the Upper and the Lower, are very important to the story, the citadel of French power and culture at the very top and the frontier world of commerce and wilderness at the bottom. For just as Cecile’s mother was committed to the former, bringing it with her across the ocean in her heart and treasured hopes for her daughter, Cecile is beguiled and drawn much more to latter, viewing it honestly as the only home she has ever known.

So much so, in fact, that Cecile, despite her dead mother’s wishes, has no real desire to return to France, or even to perpetuate the French culture and lifestyle in the New World. Somewhat early in the novel we hear the story of Bichet, an old knife-grinder who lodged with Cecile’s grandparents in France, and who is rightly accused of stealing two brass kettles but wrongly tortured and abused by the French authorities, confessing to countless other crimes as a result. As Euclide describes it to Cecile:

“Your grandfather and I hurried to the prison to speak for him. Your grandfather told them that a man so old and infirm would admit anything under fright and anguish, not knowing what he said; that a confession obtained under torture was not true evidence. This infuriated the Judge. If we would take oath that the prisoner had never stolen anything from us, they would put him into the strappado again and make him correct his confession. We saw that the only thing we could do for our old lodger was to let him pass quickly. Luckily for Bichet, the prison was overcrowded, and he was hanged the next morning.

“Your grandmother never got over it. She had for a long while struggled with asthma every winter, and that year when the asthma came on, she ceased to struggle. She said she had no wish to live longer in a world where such cruelties could happen.

“And I am like my grandmother,” cried Cecile, catching her father’s hand. “I do not want to live there. I had rather stay in Quebec always! Nobody is tortured here, except by the Indians, in the woods, and they know no better. But why does the King allow such things, when they tell us he is a kind King?”

“It is not the King, my dear, it is the Law. The Law is to protect property, and it thinks too much of property. A couple of brass pots, an old saddle, are reckoned worth more than a poor man’s life.”


And Cecile means it. As we come to see, the prospect of the Count going back to France—of his own will or by royal summons, and therefore bringing his apothecary and his daughter with him—becomes a central plot point in the novel. But Cecile, a French girl who has never seen France except as an infant, has no desire to return. She finds no greater happiness than in the simple pleasures of her existence in Quebec. Her connections to the people and the place are that strong.

She put the sled-rope under 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 neighbours’ 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.

Jacques is a young boy from an impoverished background, who Euclide and Cecile both try to protect from the roughness of his own life, and who wants everything they have but can never fully express his aching desire.

Much as Jacques loved chocolate (in so far as he knew, this was the only house in the world in which that comforting drink was made), there was something he cared more about, something that gave him a kind of solemn satisfaction,—Cecile’s cup. She had a silver cup with a handle; on the front was engraved a little wreath of roses, and inside that wreath was the name, “Cecile,” cut in the silver. Her Aunt Clothilde had given it to her when she was but a tiny baby, so it had been hers all her life. That was what seemed so wonderful to Jacques. His clothes had always belonged to somebody else before they were made over for him; he slept wherever there was room for him, sometimes with his mother, sometimes on a bench. He had never had anything of his own except his toy beaver,—and now he would have his shoes, made just for him. But to have a little cup, with your name on it…even if you died, it would still be there, with your name.

More than the shop with all the white jars and mysterious implements, more than the carpet and the curtains and the red sofa, the cup fixed Cecile as born to security and privileges. He regarded it with respectful, wistful admiration. Before the milk or chocolate was poured, he liked to hold it and trace with his finger-tips the letter that made it so peculiarly and almost sacredly hers. Since his attention was evidently fixed upon her cup, more than once Cecile had suggested that he drink his chocolate from it, and she would use another. But he shook his head, unable to explain. That was not at all what her cup meant to him. Indeed, Cecile could not know what it meant to him; she was too fortunate.


Jacques is a minor character in the novel, but he adds so much depth and understanding to the subtext. He is like so many of Cather’s minor characters—well crafted as individuals, with internal motivations and desires, but also easily viewed as archetypes, supporting the flow of Cather’s narrative and highlighting the differences between people that so often so unexpressed.

In many ways, Shadows on the Rock is a very religious book. Belief in God and Catholicism is very much a part of the story, with most of the characters showing true devotion to the faith. In researching the book, in fact, I found it featured on a website for Catholic educators. The conclusion presented there? “This is a wonderful story to study with young girls giving them an example of a truly Catholic girlhood where simple pleasures provide happiness and the importance of family is emphasized.”

I’m not so sure. Yes, it can be read that way, but there are other parts that make it less than devotional. Cecile’s father, for one, is more secular than sectarian, a bit of a scientist with more “faith” in his drugs and potions than the fervent prayers of many of his patients. And Cecile herself, who is certainly devoted to her faith and to the Virgin Mary, is often more focused on her own natural and expressive reverence than anything the representatives of the official church can offer her.

For example, when Cecile thinks she is to be taken back to France, and goes to the Monseigneur to tell him of her fears for Jacques and who will watch over him, they have this exchange:

“You must pray for him, my child. It is to such as he that our Blessed Mother comes nearest. You must unceasingly recommend him to her, and I will not forget to do so.”

“I shall always pray for him,” Cecile declared fervently, “but if only there were someone in this world, here in Quebec—Oh, Monseigneur l’Ancien,” she turned to him pleadingly, “everyone says you are a father to your people, and no one needs a father so much as poor Jacques! If you would bid Houssart keep an eye on him, and when he sees the little boy dirty and neglected, to bring him here, where everything is good and clean, and wash his face! It would help him only to sit here with you—he is like that, Madame Pommier would look after him for me, but she cannot get about, and Jacques will not go to her, I am afraid. He is shy. When he is very dirty and ragged, he hides away.”

“Compose yourself, my child. We can do something. Suppose I were to send him to the Brothers’ school in Montreal, and prepare him for the Seminary?”

She shook her head despondently. “He could never learn Latin. He is not a clever child; but he is good. I don’t think he would be happy in a school.”

“Schools are not meant to make boys happy, Cecile, but to teach them to do without happiness.”

“When he is older, perhaps, Monseigneur, but he is only seven.”

“I was only nine when I was sent to La Fleche, and that is a severe school,” said the Bishop. Perhaps some feeling of pity for his own hard boyhood, the long hours of study, the iron discipline, the fasts and vigils that kept youth pale, rose in his heart. He sighed heavily and murmured something under his breath, of which Cecile caught only the words: “…domus…Domine.”


Cecile knows that Jacques needs something more than what the church can offer him. And the Monseigneur, I think, knows it, too—his internal thoughts providing the reader with a telling critique of his religious upbringing. It’s a device that Cather uses multiple times in the novel—allowing the characters themselves to reveal something to the reader than may remain hidden to the other characters. Here’s another example, from when Euclide and the Count are discussing the potential of one or both of them returning to France. The Count relates a story about a long ago audience with the King:

“My second audience was at Fontainebleau, shortly before we embarked for La Rochelle. The King received me very graciously in his cabinet, but he was no longer in a conqueror’s mood; he had consulted the treasury. When I referred to the project he had advanced at our previous meeting [the seizure of New York and the Atlantic seaports from the English], he glanced at the clock over his fireplace and remarked that it was the hour for feeding the carp. He asked me to accompany him. An invitation to attend His Majesty at the feeding of the carp is, of course, a compliment. We went out to the carp basins. I like a fine pond of carp myself, and those at Fontainebleau are probably the largest and fiercest in France. The pages brought baskets of bread, and His Majesty threw in the first loaves. The carp there are monsters, really. They piled up on each other in hills as high as the rim of the basin, with all their muzzles out; they caught a loaf and devoured it before it could touch the water. Not long before that, care-taker’s little girl fell into the pond, and the carp tore her to pieces while her father was running to the spot. Some of them are very old and have an individual renown. One old creature, red and rusty down to his belly, they call the Cardinal.”

The carp, of course, represent the church and the church leaders—the allusion to the Cardinal at the end is unmistakable—and in that context, the metaphor of the ravenous carp tearing the little girl apart becomes quite sinister. What I think is going on here is not Cather’s rejection of reverence and Godliness, but her rejection of organized religions that put things like education and politics and discipline between what is holy and the people meant to receive it. And Cecile, it seems to me, in her affinity for Quebec, its natural wonders and its people, is much more a testimony for the spiritual life rather than the religious one.

The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.

Not just miracles, Willa. Stories, too.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for this lovely book review. I just finished Shadows on the Rock, and like most of the other Cather books I have read, I'm sorry that it had to end. She writes about nature, spirituality, family, loss, with a breathtaking artistry. I'm glad to have found your blog.

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    1. Thanks! Which Cather book is your favorite?

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  2. The book made a strong impression on me some ten years ago when I first read it. The fact that I had previously visited Quebec City I think helped me immensely to appreciate it. Death Comes for the Archbishop reminds for me her best book--but this one is a close second, even if some of the vivid scenes of My Antonia are truly unforgettable. What a phenomenal writer we have in Willa Cather. What power she has in words when crafting her stories. I enjoyed your review very much, even I find her more appreciative of the Catholic belief than you. But maybe you are right--her position was perhaps critical of just some of the wrong she saw in the Church--and the Church has always been made of sinner. I like to believe Cather was a great admirer of Catholicism. She had a close friendship with Sigrid Undset--whose masterwork and 1928 Nobel Kristin Lavransdatter is also unforgettable--and who had undergone a fierce, life-changing conversion to the Catholic Church earlier. Thanks for your blog post.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ana. I'll put Kristin Lavransdatter on my "to read" list. I was not familiar with the work or the author, but after reading about it and her on Wikipedia, my interest is piqued.

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    2. My husband and I both loved it, and also her other work in 4 volumes, The Master of Hestviken.

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