Skip to main content

Shadows on the Rock

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

Shadows on the Rock, By Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.

I do not know that it has ever been told of Sainte-Beuve that once he visited a dear friend soon after the birth of her child, and the mother, remembering his penchant for discussing a new book in terms of its origins, said, lifting her boy to him, “Maitre, review for me the latest edition.” “Helas! ma cherie,” he responded, “this is life, not art.”

When Willa Cather presents the world with a new novel it is somewhat in the spirit of abashed humility that a self-respecting critic should approach her work; for she is of the true faith in that, as God created Man in His own likeness, she creates men and women in the likeness of the creatures He has made. She has not developed for herself a form for her novels, or a formula of workmanship that makes it easy, to fit each book into a discussion of her growth as an artist. Each of her novels has its own existence quite apart from any of her other books, whatever family resemblances there may be. We admire the firm, sure modelling, the quick, fresh, lovingly laid-on coloring, and step back the better to wonder at the beauty of the statue in its entirety—and lo, Hermione steps down from her pedestal.

There is less story to “Shadows on the Rock” than to any other of Miss Cather’s novels. Yet it is full of incident and full of characters. It opens in October, 1697, as the sails of the French ships retreat “behind the green island that splits the St. Lawrence below Quebec.” The Epilogue is dated August, 1718, fifteen years after the death of Frontenac, with which the main narrative closes. Hence it is just through the changing season of a little more than one year that we watch the shifting and varicolored shadows move across the rock that is Kebec. And old Quebec comes alive not only in its contours, its scents and its colors, but through its people, We do not feel that we are reading an historical romance. We realize that we are in a different time, yet the feeling is that customs and conditions differ only as they do to-day between place and place. In the background always are France and the memories of France. Those ships that have just left as the story, opens and as it closes; those ships that have just brought back the new bishop, who has grown old, in the Epilogue, hover always on the mind’s horizon like shuttles of doom, with France as the moving hand of Fate.

The figures about whom the novel is centered are the apothecary, Euclide Auclair, and his twelve-year-old daughter, Cecile. But there is a background of characters as there is of place. Especially vivid are the old Count de Frontenac and the old Bishop Laval, as well as the young bishop, Mont-seigneur de Saint-Vallier, and Pierre Charron, hero of the fur trade. But they swarm, these living shadows on the rock: Jacques, the much loved little boy whose mother was ‘Toin-ette the outcast; Father Hector Saint-Cyr, who wanted to know who should want better food in the winter than smoked eels and cold lard; and Antoine Frichette, the woodsman. Each of fill the many people who come by one way or another into the narrative, from the ships when they are in, from the convent walls or the shops or the forest or the Chateau, are distinct and individual, however representative they may be. By the method of the “cut-back” there are woven into the texture of the novel the tales of the earlier lives of many of the characters, and legends and anecdotes of old Quebec;— Jeanne Le Ber the recluse, Blinker the one-time torturer, Mother Catherine the saint, and Noel Chabanel, apostle to the Indians. Almost, it might seem as if Auclair and his so human little daughter were but the means by, which into one book there can be gathered all this rich material that brings alive the old Quebec. Yet that is not the effect of the reading of “Shadows on the Rock.” The method seems episodic but the effect does not seem episodic. It is true that nothing much happens in the story proper except that Auclair and his little daughter live before our eyes for a year and some days in the apothecary shop and that the great Count de Frontenac dies: it is from the Epilogue that we learn that little Cecile later married. The unity of the book is partly through tone and partly by means of the exquisite skill with which Miss Cather has interwoven her materials of life. France and Canada, memories, legends, the fabric of faith and the traffic of the heart and mind to-day, affairs of Count, bishops, nuns, fur trader, shoe-maker, apothecary, little maid, harlot, sailor, and saint are all of one stuff, in one picture, shadows on the same rock. There are strength and strife, more by implication than by narration, but out of them —as in the riddle of Samson—comes forth sweetness.

If in particular the book is an embodiment of the spirit of old Quebec, like all true and intense art that has its roots in a place, it has universality too. It is pervaded by the spirit of humanity. The attitude toward all things in the book is one of the tenderest compassion. And this, we understand, springs from no soft sentimentality, but as the flower of something hard and bitter. It may be recalled here that of the poor creature, Blinker, who in France had been born to the trade of the torturer, it was said that having known misery, he had learned to pity the miserable. Though its people are French, “Shadows on the Rock” is in a tradition, in that it exalts three qualities that have been three of the cardinal virtues in English literature since the time of Beowulf: courage, loyalty, and kindness. But the book does not generalize; Miss Cather keeps to the human, the specific, the concrete, the little—not for her “unremembered”—acts that make life; for what she is doing after all is bringing alive “a little group of Frenchmen, three thousand miles from home, making the best of things.”

As so often with life, the little incidents become the most memorable. They throng like personal memories back to one’s mind: the old Bishop finding the little boy lost in the snow, Cecile and the little boy lighting the candles in the Church of the Infant Jesus and borrowing twenty sous from the old Bishop, the rich odour of the chocolate that made the nostrils of Jacques quiver like a puppy’s, the unpacking of the Holy Family from the old home:—like the tapestries on the Count’s walls, “One could study them for hours without seeing all the flowers and figures.” As Cecile learned from her visit to the lie d’Orleans on the river, it is not enough to be kind, one must have “kind things about one, too.” Miss Cather has here shored up against time many, kind things. The humanity of things that have been associated with the daily savours of human life, their durability and their power to give an enduring quality to human life that human lives have not got and a rich, shining precious-ness to the objects themselves, are qualities that are remembered. There is Cecile’s cup with its little wreath of roses, and there are Jacques’ beaver and his shoes, the high altar of the Lady Chapel, and the purple figs, yellow-green grapes, apricots, nectarines, and dark citron, of glowing colored glass, on the Count’s mantelpiece between the tall silver candlesticks,—and there are the sprigs of parsley that must not freeze through the long winter. We know M. Auclair better when we have heard why he does not believe in the efficacy of powdered horn of the unicorn and we are closer to the children for thinking that Captain Pondaven’s African parrot, Coco, must have a soul because he talked. . . . It is chiefly through its details that the circumference of this book grows large. Miss Cather, like one of her woodsmen, has “authority and a power which comes from knowledge of the country and its people; from knowledge, and from a kind of passion.” Of matters that do not have to do with the characters, the incidents, or the modelling of the form, it might be said of this book that it glows with the rich colors of things seen, and is written in that close-textured prose that has never failed its author. Here is an example of one of the more carefully considered bits of description, taken out of a picture of autumn in the Upper Town:

A sharp gable rose out of a soft drift of tarnished foliage like a piece of agate set in fine gold-smith’s work. So many kinds of gold, all gleaming in the soft, hyacinth-coloured haze of autumn: wan, sickly gold of the willows, already, dropping; bright gold of the birches, copper gold of the beeches. Most beautiful of all was the tarnished gold of the elms, with a little brown in it, a little bronze, a little blue, even—a blue like amethyst, which made them melt into the azure haze with a kind of happiness, a harmony of mood that filled the air with content.

There will be much comparing of “Shadows on the Rock” with “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” It is inevitable; yet they are books that ought not to be compared, though her most recent novel is in many respects more like the one that preceded it than is any other book that Miss Cather has written. The “Shadows” is a more intimate book; the other casts the larger shadow. One might love the newer book better, but it will not be so greatly admired, By its theme and inception, “Death Comes for the Archbishop” had a wider scope. The world of “Shadows on the Rock” is a rounded world, bound in by the trackless forests and the sea. We enter into the circle of a hearth fire and we come to feel that every family is the Holy Family. We know our little world lovingly. But we have not as in the other book the illusion of distances that lure us on, vistas of romance and uncertainty. We get from the one book— the figure is stolen from Miss Cather—”a warm sweet odour —very like the smell of ripe strawberries” which is the “aromatic breath of spruce and pine, given out under the hot sun of noonday”: from the other we get the savour of the more mysterious scents that the winds brought from those same shores to the early explorers, which they described as “the smell of luscious unknown fruits, wafted out to sea.” In saying which, it is not meant that “Shadows on a Rock” is any the less a novel to be crowned and welcomed with the ringing of bells.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading