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 crèche, and her nephew Charles brought a toy cow with him. Cather thought maybe he might not want to give up his toy for the crèche, but Charles said he wanted to give it to Jesus.
Cather went to live in Quebec so she could better research this novel. The novel reflects the relationship between father and daughter, Cécile and Auclair. Like many of Cather’s fictions, Shadows on the Rock tends to be autobiographical. She wrote the novel at a time of personal trauma and upheaval. Her father had died, and his death severely affected her. In addition, her mother had recently had a paralytic stroke. Cather’s apartment, where she had happily lived for fourteen years, was being demolished, and she had to find somewhere to live. Her research into the history and culture of Quebec and her personal experiences with illness, death, and threats to the home all serve to enrich the novel.
Youth has always been a theme in Cather’s works, and Shadows on the Rock is no exception. She felt her most important years were between nine and sixteen, and she would often try to recapture the qualities of those youthful years in her fiction. This is probably why Cécile is portrayed as a child and as a...
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