Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

I’ve been working my way through the novels of Willa Cather for several years now and I thought I had her pegged pretty well as very concerned with religion but chafing at its restraints. I got the sense that her characters wanted to live a more worldly/bohemian (sorry for the bad pun) lifestyle, to the extent that is even possible in the harsh environments they lived in. They chafed at the religion that constrained them, or at least were highly ambivalent about their relationship to that religion. Death Comes to the Archbishop shook that impression a little, but it still had enough of a struggle that I still largely maintained my impression. After reading Shadows on the Rock, and checking where it fell in her bibliography (near the end), I was convinced she was Catholic. I didn’t see this as a problem, as I’ve said on this blog many times, I’m a sucker for Catholic novelists, despite my agnosticism.  A quick google established that she was raised Baptist and later became Episcopalian. I really want to read a biography of her now to see how that tension between faith and its strictures actually played out in her life.

Shadows on the Rock is a slice of life novel, that slice comprising a year in the life of  Euclide Auclair, an apothecary in the city of Quebec in and his daughter Cecille, beginning in 1697. The year in the city of the time was apparently marked by the arrival and departure of ships from France bearing supplies, people and news from home. One theme that it definitely shares with the earlier books is that of people in a rough remote setting who have to make do for themselves. It also shares a mistrust of indiginous people which it’s hard to know whether to attribute to the characters, the author or both. I suspect both. It’s a hard life there on the rock (the cliff that comprises the city) and it narrates what happens to the Auclairs and their various neighbors. It seems like a fundamentally kind novel.Cecille is pious almost to the point of naivete, and yet is not off-putting at all. She, twelve herself, cares for another, younger child in need there, among other things convincing a bishop to buy him shoes. The biggest character arc is that of a self inflated bishop revealed to have been humbled in a fifteen-years-later epilogue.

Despite its relative lack of drama the book was compulsively readable. I found myself won over by it while not entirely understanding why. I would still cite My Antonia as my favorite among Cather’s works, leaving open the possibility that the Song of the Lark, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or My Mortal Enemy could supplant it upon rereading. But I will likely return to this one as well.

Recommended bordering on Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 37/75

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