This is another cross-blogging venture with writer and blogger Christine Poulson, where we read the same book and each write our own thoughts – see an earlier example here - or make lists of books on our favourite themes – try this one.
This time, the book is one that Chrissie has long loved, but was completely new to me. It is set in the Canadian city of Quebec as the 17th Century ends, and Chrissie took it with her to re-read when she recently visited Quebec – but I’ll let her tell her own story in her own post, which you can find here.
Shadows on the Rock by Willa Catherpublished 1931
[Cecile is out in Kebec/Quebec with her young friend Jacques, in the snow of December]
‘Are you tired, Jacques?’
‘A little, my legs are,’ he admitted.
‘Get on the sled and I will pull you up. See there’s the evening star – how near it looks! Jacques, don’t you love winter?’ 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.
commentary: Cecile came to French Canada as a very small child: she is now 12 and it is 1697. Willa Cather is always very good on migration, and on what makes a place home. Cecile’s father is always intending to go back to France; her mother died before she had the chance. Cecile doesn’t want to go, but fears she will have to.
The book covers just over a year in her life (with a splendidly satisfyingly epilogue explaining what happens to everyone), starting at the point in autumn when the last ships leave Kebec, as it is called in the book, before the city is cut off: the residents know they will have to survive on what they have till spring, and that there will be no news, supplies, packages or letters from France for many long months. (The chapter, late in the book, when the ships appear in spring is one of the best in the book – it is joyful and detailed and a complete delight).
We follow Cecile round her daily life: her father is the apothecary, known to everyone in the town. The important people are the Count who is the Governor (the man who brought Cecile’s family out there); and the two feuding Bishops. But Cecile and her father also know everyone else, from backwoodsmen to little Jacques, the son of a woman of low moral fibre. (Cather is a lot less forgiving of the mother than of anyone else in the book. She can show endless understanding of many people, sins and crimes – but when she takes against one of her creations there is no hope).
As in so many great books, nothing much happens. She shows us the rhythm of the year, the small vanities and sillinesses of people, the slight snobberies and the class system. Religion plays an important part - it is central to life there, to most of the people. And there are the nuns, who are cheerful because they form their own world of friends and saints. But then there is a very sad story of a religious recluse, who leaves the world behind along with the man who loves her. The story where he sees her in church many years later is haunting and terrible.
There is an odd diversion when Cecile goes to stay with another family out in the country: she turns into a priggish young madam – the local children tell her about ‘peculiarities of animal behaviour which she thought it better taste to ignore’ and she hates every minute. She comes home early, and her beloved father ‘did not seem so overjoyed as Cecile had thought he would be’. The whole episode is quite unlike the rest of the book – the father’s lack of enthusiasm is not further explained and seems out of character. There’s a moment when you wonder if Cecile isn’t all she’s meant to be, but perhaps Cather decided not to go in that direction.
Along the way she tells the backstories of many of the characters. It is amazingly well-done, and wholly convincing: you feel that IS what it was like. The writing is lovely, though the language sometimes seems as though it was translated from the French: perhaps that is Cather’s respect for the language they all spoke.
As must be obvious, I loved the book, and am very grateful to Chrissie for bringing me to it. It doesn’t seem to be well-known – I downloaded a massive bundle of Cather’s work to my Kindle in the hope of finding it, but it wasn’t there. But it is well worth seeking it out.
And now I will be very interested to find out what Chrissie says about it, and what it was like re-reading it actually in Quebec… and here is her post, do go and read it.
It wasn’t an easy task to look for pictures illustrating Quebec at this time. The two snowy landscapes show the area more than 100 years later, but give a feel for the place.
The two portraits - the man is an apothecary, like Cecile's father - are both by the same artist, Gabriel Metsu, from earlier in the 17th century, and are European, but again seemed to have a look as to how Cecile and her father might have been… and clothes and styles presumably would take some time to come across to Canada.
All four pictures from the Athenaeum.
The Apothecary and the Kitchen Maid by Gabriel Metsu.
Early Winter on the St. Anne's, below Quebec, and Hebitant Sleigh, View near the Canada Line both by Cornelius Krieghoff.