09 March 2011

Book Review: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

In Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather tells a story of Quebec in the 1690s. As I consider what to write about this book, three things immediately come to mind. The first is how well Cather evokes different places and different times in her novels and how she piques my interest in uniquely North American experiences that wouldn't necessarily be of much interest to me. No surprise to regular readers of My Porch, but I get a little fixated on Western Europe and the genteel, urban Northeast of the U.S. But whether writing about the prairies, the Southwest, or the early days of French Canada, Cather not only holds my interest in these places, but also creates a real enthusiasm for them that makes me want to experience them first hand.

The second thing that comes to mind is what a great book this would make for kids. I don't have kids so maybe I am off base. Maybe there is a theme or two that may not be appropriate for young eyes, but then again maybe not. The action centers around a young Cecile and her widowed father. The two lead a pretty happy life that put me in mind of the book Heidi. I think Shadows on the Rock is more complex and sophisticated than Heidi, but Cecile reminded me of Heidi's joy and zest for life. Cecile and her father have the perfect relationship. Caring father and doting daughter, each taking good care of the other and so clearly happy with each other's company.

The fact that the father and daughter rely so much on each other brings me to the third thing that jumps out at me when thinking about Shadows on the Rock. They have to rely on each other because of the long, often harsh winters, but also because of the frontier isolation of  Quebec in 1697. The book begins in October just as the last ship of the season leaves for France, cutting off the city from the rest of the world until things warm up again in the spring. Quebec's only link to the rest of the world during the winter was via the rarely used overland connection to the English colonial port in New York which stays open throughout the year. I don't tend to read much historical fiction so I am always a little in awe when an author manages to immerse me in another world. And, as a North American, I am also in awe of the fact that there is a North American story that is as old as the 1690s. I know intellectually that Europeans were active in North America much earlier than that, but I don't think I ever really took onboard what that would mean in real terms. I am probably also stunted by my upbringing in the Midwest which has a history that doesn't really get going until the 19th century. And when it comes to the East Coast, my mind doesn't really check-in until the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. So I guess Cather manages to chip away at my decidedly limited conception of North American history.

I am not sure if Shadows on the Rock is a good candidate to represent who Willa Cather is as a novelist, but it is a darn good read and is rather uplifting, and to a certain degree lighthearted. I think it would a be great try for someone who isn't quite sure if Cather is their cup of tea.


  1. Ah yes, I love this book and think your comparison of Cecile to Heidi is well done. I hadn't thought of her like that before, but ofc it's a joy and buoyancy that they share. I've read a couple of Quebec novels that have given me that sense of history. Antoine Maillet's Pelagie is brilliant. I do hope you can find a copy! I fear though she's another Canadian author not so well known out of Canada, but I remember loving that book.

  2. I'm becoming more and more impressed by Willa Cather -- I love My Antonia but there is so much more to her work! I had no idea she wrote about 17th century Canada. I agree, as Americans there is so much history that we just never think about it. I'm adding this one to my TBR list right now.

  3. I do like the sound of an American version of Heidi. I have really been enjoying my Cather part of my VMC journey so hope I can get hold of this one fairly soon!

  4. Willa Cather can do no wrong in my eyes! This one sounds fascinating - I didn't realise it was a historical novel. I've had it on my shelf at home for years and never read it - it will be a priority when I return to my collection!

    Cather does manage to somehow effortlessly draw you in, doesn't she? No matter what she writes about, or where she writes about, whether it would ordinarily interest me or not, I find myself fascinated. Such a brilliant writer.

  5. Donna: I'm glad you confirmed my Cecile/Heidi thoughts. I am always worried about steering people wrong.

    Karen: Too bad Oprah never chose a Cather. That would have really put her on the map.

    Verity: I think that Heidi and Cecile are similar in outlook but the circumstances are different enough that I am not sure there are any other similarities.

    Rachel: I have always liked Cather, but in recent years have really come to feel the same as you. With each new Cather I read I am more impressed with her overall.

  6. I will have to check this one out. I love historical fiction, and you made it sound like it might even be a good read aloud? Thanks for the review!

  7. I read My Antonia years and years ago and hardly remember my impression of it. I like the sound of this one. I like a good father-daughter story and I like authors who capture a sense of place.

    - Christy

  8. Susan: Yes, I definitely think this a good read aloud book.

    Christy: Then you should find this one right up your alley.


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