I flew into Québec on the 15th October, and by coincidence that is the same month that Willa Cather’s novel. Shadows on the Rock, opens. ‘One afternoon late in October 1697, Euclide Auclair, the philosopher apothecary of Quebec, stood on the top of Cap Diamant gazing down the broad, empty river far beneath him. Empty, because an hour ago the flash of retreating sails had disappeared behind the green island that splits the St. Lawrence below Quebec, and the last of the summer ships from France had started on her long journey home. . . Now for eight months the French colony on this rock in the North would be entirely cut off from Europe, from the rest of the world.’
It was the idea of this isolation that caught my imagination when I first read Shadows on the Rock (published in 1931). I wonder if Moira will love it as much as I do. It is a quiet novel, about love and loss and exile and longing. It has at its heart the loving relationship between the gentle Euclide and his twelve-year old daughter, Cécile, who runs the household since the wife and mother died two years earlier. We see in flashback how they came to be in Québec.
Historical fiction isn’t a favourite genre of mine, but the details here seem so immediate, so real. This is a society that cherishes conservative values of tradition and continuity and the right way of doing things. The dying mother explain to the daughter how, for instance, she brought enough fine linen from France to last the winter. The sheets must be changed fortnightly, but they will not be washed until the spring, when Jeanette the laundress will come to take over the house for several days. ‘Beg her to iron the sheets carefully. They . . . will last your lifetime if they are well treated.’ She also hands on the French ways of cooking – food is important in the novel and is described in fascinating detail. Cécile nurtures the pot of parsley that is part of her mother’s legacy to her.
The novel spans a year and there isn’t really a plot, though the time encompasses an important event in the lives of father and daughter: the death of their patron, the Count de Frontenac, governor of Québec. He was a real historical character, as is the austere old Bishop, and they are described so vividly that they leap off the page:
‘The Count had the bearing of a fencer when he takes up the foil; from his shoulder to his heels there was intention and direction. His carriage was his unconscious idea of himself, – it was an armour he put on when he took off his night-cap in the morning, and he wore it all day, at early Mass, at his desk, on the march, at the Council, at his dinner-table. Even his enemies relied on his strength.’
Modern day Québec doesn’t look retain much of what was there in 1700. The buildings were of wood and were often destroyed by fire and rebuilt. But still it is a wonderful city and the marvellous site overlooking the St. Lawrence is the same. I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed visiting the chapel and the museum of the Ursuline sisters who feature in the book and I took a boat trip on the river. Strolling around the streets in the evening after dinner, it seemed a magical place.
Having shared this much loved book with Moira, I am longing to know what she made of it. And now I do know! Here are her thoughts over at http://Clothesinbooks.com
I went to Québec because I love Willa Cather’s novel, Shadows on the Rock, which is set there. (There are worse reasons). When I decided to go to this year’s Bouchercon, which was held in Toronto, the opportunity to go onto Québec for a few days was too good an opportunity to miss.
Naturally I took Shadows on the Rock with me. I kept it for the plane from Toronto to Québec last Sunday afternoon. It is a rereading that I won’t forget in a hurry. I arrived at the airport already exhausted by the lingering effects of jet-lag and four days of full-on conference which included two hours of meet-the-author ‘speed dating’ (don’t ask!). I managed to lose – separately – both my boarding pass and my purse and though I was swiftly reunited with both, this rattled me.
Next, the flight which was supposed to leave at around 4.30 was delayed for two hours. At last we boarded. The revised arrival time was 7.45 and, engrossed in Shadows on the Rock, and enjoying it just as much as on earlier readings, I didn’t at first notice that 7.45 had come and gone. When I did, I saw that it was dark by now and we seemed to be flying through grey cotton wool. Then the pilot announced that we couldn’t land because of a storm over Québec airport. We hit a patch of turbulence and though I am not a nervous flyer, I began to feel uneasy as well as rather queasy. Then another announcement: the plane was being diverted to Montreal. There wasn’t enough fuel for us to circle Québec airport indefinitely.
More turbulence and by this time I was beginning to wish that I had opted for the nine-hour train journey. Three quarters of an hour later, to my great relief we landed at Montreal. It seemed very likely that we’d be spending the night there and I thought wistfully of my hotel room in Québec. But in the end the storm subsided in time for the refueled plane to set off later that evening and around midnight I checked into my hotel very late and very tired, but safe and sound.
Was it worth it? Definitely! But it was certainly an eventful trip, and that was even without what happened on the coach trip to Niagara Falls. To be continued . . .