Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lessons from Shadows on the Rock

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. 

Willa Cather wrote Shadows on the Rock just four years after Death Comes for the Archbishop.  In some ways, the novels are quite similar: both are works of historical fiction that include real people as characters.  They also are written in Cather's distinct style, which lacks one unified, driving plot with conflict and resolution; instead, Cather focuses on short vignettes with strong characterization that bring her figures to life.

The works couldn't be more different, however, in their setting.  While Death Comes for the Archbishop is set in the American southwest in the 19th century, Shadows on the Rock's setting is Quebec, 1697. 

And what a setting it is!

It is amazing how Cather, having never lived in the late 17th century or in New France, can bring the French colony there to life in so many vivid details.  She must have meticulously studied the time period to recreate it so stunningly in her book.  I have never traveled to Quebec, but after reading Cather's novel, I feel as though I have just returned home from a trip there.  One can see the landscape of mountains of pine, feel the icy cold of a Quebec winter, hear the clanging of the Cathedral bell echoing through the night air...

When the sun had almost sunk behind the black ridges of the western forest, Cecile and Jacques sat down on the Cathedral steps to eat their gouter...Now they had the hill to themselves,--and this was the most beautiful part of the afternoon.  They thought they would like to go down once more.  With a quick push-off their sled shot down through constantly changing colour; deeper and deeper into violet, blue, purple, until at the bottom it was almost black.  As they climbed up again, they watched the last flames of orange light burn off the high points of the rock. 

Cather follows a year in the lives of Euclide Auclair and his daughter, Cecile.  Euclide is an apothecary and has come to Quebec in the service of the governor, Count de Frontenac.  A widower, he and his daughter have settled themselves into a warm, welcoming home--indeed, Quebec, so far and so different from their native land, has become their home.  

The book opens with Euclide watching the ships sail away on their return journey to France.  It is autumn in Quebec and they will have no news until June when the ships return.  Communication has ceased and one realizes the great vastness of space and distance that separated the French colonists from their fellow Frenchmen.  In the wilderness of pine that surround them, they cling to the rock of Quebec where they have made a home.  

Why, the priest wondered, were these fellows always glad to get back to Kebec?  Why did they come at all?  Why should this particular cliff in the wilderness be echoing tonight with French songs, answering to the French tongue?  He recalled certain naked islands in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence; mere ledges of rock standing up a little out of the sea, where the sea birds came every year to lay their eggs and rear their young in the caves and hollows... This headland was scarcely more than that; a crag where for some reason human beings built themselves nests in the rock, and held fast.

They cling to the rock ... and to the Rock--to the Church.  It is the Church that directs and guides of lives of the French colonists.  Cecile and her father have brought a creche from France, which Cecile excitedly displays on Christmas Eve.  Her friend, Jacques, brings a gift for the infant Jesus in the manger: a beaver, carved out of wood.  The beaver in the creche is the Catholic faith, brought to New France.  

The North American martyrs and some of their stories appear in Shadows on the Rock.  Their courageous example and the vibrant faith of those who followed them are some of the most powerful passages.  Cather writes about the elderly bishop Laval, who finds young Jacques, searching about the empty night streets for his mother (a prostitute).  The bishop takes the abandoned boy into his residence, has him bathed and rests Jacque in his own bed.  

She [Cecile] always felt a kind of majesty in his grimness and poverty.  Seventy-four years of age and much crippled by his infirmities, going about in a rusty old cassock, he yet commanded one's admiration in a way that the new Bishop, with all his personal elegance, did not.  One believed in his consecration, in some special authority own from fasting and penances and prayer; it was in his face, in his shoulders, it was he.

"It was he."  What a powerful line!  The power was his presence, of the grace and piety that authentically flowed out from him.  Come to find out, Bishop Laval is one of the many historical figures who appear in the book--Pope Francis canonized him 2014!

In another memorable vignette, Cecile and her father are paid a visit by a woodsman who works in the fur trade.  He recounts a harrowing experience of traveling through a massive snowstorm with a priest, in an effort to reach his dying brother.  

"Before daylight the wind died, but the cold was so bitter we had to move or freeze.  It was good snowshoeing that day, but with empty bellies and thirst and eating snow, we both had colic.  That night we ate the last of our lard.  I wasn't sure we were going right,--the snow had changed the look of everything.  When Father Hector took off the little box he carried that held the Blessed Sacrament, I said: 'Maybe that will do for us two, Father.  I don't see much ahead of us.'
'Never fear, Antoine,' says he, 'while we carry that, Someone is watching over us...'"

Not all of the stories are of canonized saints or life-or-death ventures through the wilderness.  Many are just the ordinary details of day-to-day life--timeless feelings and experiences: a sense of home and rootedness, the order of routine and familiarity.  One of my favorite passages from the book is when Cecile goes on a small trip to visit Ile d'Orleans.  While initially excited about the adventure beyond Quebec, Cecile finds herself homesick and longing for the comfortable familiarity of her father and own bed.

She lay still and stiff on the very edge of the feather bed, until the children were asleep and she could hear the smith and his wife snoring in the next room...Cecile got up very softly and dressed carefully in the dark.  There was only one window in the room, and that was shut tight to keep out mosquitos.  She sat down beside it and watched the moon come up,--the same moon that was shining down on the rock of Kebec.  Perhaps her father was taking his walk on Cap Diamant, and was looking up the river at the Ile d'Orleans and thinking of her.  She began to cry quietly.  She thought a great deal about her mother, too, that night; how her mother had always made everything at home beautiful, just as here everything about cooking, eating, sleeping, living, seemed repulsive.

I remember with such clarity sleeping over at a friend's house and, like Cecile, gazing out the bedroom window while my friend peacefully slept.  All I could think about was the feeling of my own home and family.  No matter that this friend lived only about five minutes away; I missed everything about home.  

Characters and their stories come in and out of the Auclairs' life in the course of the year.  What is lacking in typical plot in Shadows on the Rock is made up for in the powerful resonance of the stories and images presented.  

Quebec in 1697 is so very distant from 2017.  But Cather makes it real, pertinent, and even familiar.  It is her writing, yes.  And it is also that Quebec was built on the Rock that still is strong today, whatever new world one may be exploring: you can still find home in the Church, which directs, protects, and guides our lives.

Cecile did not always waken at the first bell, which rang in the coldest hour of the night, but when she did, she felt a peculiar sense of security, as if there must be powerful protection for Kebec in such steadfastness, and the new day, which was yet darkness, was beginning as it should.  The punctual bell and the stern old Bishop who rang it began an orderly procession of activities and held life together on the rock, though the winds lashed it and the billows of snow drove over it.