Shadows on the Rock Essay - Critical Essays

Willa Cather

Critical Evaluation

To an extent, Shadows on the Rock stands apart from other Willa Cather novels because of its setting. Cather is known as a regionalist, one who writes of nineteenth and twentieth century Nebraska and the Southwest. In this novel, she not only does not write about the Midwest but also she does not write about the United States. Set in late seventeenth century Quebec, Canada, Shadows on the Rock shows the human spirit of a different type of pioneer than those Cather usually writes about. Typically, Cather’s immigrants are Swedish, Bohemian, English, and Spanish, living on the plains or in the Southwest. In this novel, Cather deals with a French family living in an urban setting about two hundred years before the time of her other novels.

The plot revolves around twelve-year-old Cécile Auclair and her father Euclide, who settle in New France. Parts of the story are episodic; they are seemingly unrelated events that somehow connect to the lives of the Auclairs. For example, the Auclairs are visited by a hunchback known as Blinker, who tells how he tortured a woman into admitting she had killed her son. The woman was executed for her crime. Then her son returned. This is one of the memorable, haunting stories that appears in Cather’s work. As a journalist, Cather often rewrote true stories she knew about into her fiction. She based her short story “Paul’s Case,” for example, on an incident she had read about in the newspaper.

Cather crafted Shadows on the Rock from a story she ran across at the Louvre in Paris. She happened upon the diary of an apothecary who worked for Count Frontenac in Quebec. She began to keep notes on the diary and then formulated a story about it. After the novel was published, a pharmacy company wrote Cather stating that her information was wrong; the drug she mentioned in Shadows on the Rock did not exist at that time. Cather produced her notes from the diary to prove she was right.

Cather also included biographical incidents in her book. For example, on Christmas Day, 1927, Cather was at the family home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. She was arranging her...

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