About halfway through Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather’s 1931 novel, Cecile, the 12-year-old daughter of Quebec apothecary Euclide Auclair, hears the story of a miracle that has happened in Montreal.

It is told by Blinker, the poor, downtrodden man who lives on charity and odd jobs, as he sits in the Auclair kitchen for his nightly bowl of soup, and it has to do with Jeanne Le Ber, the heiress who turned her back on the world to become a recluse in the church she built with her dowry.

On the day after Epiphany during a great snowstorm, Blinker says, the recluse broke her spinning wheel.  In the night, two angels came to repair it.  “They say” — the men newly arrived from Montreal with the story — “her wheel was mended better than a carpenter could do it.”

Which angels?  Blinker doesn’t know although Cecile thinks that one might have been Saint Joseph, the father of Jesus, since he was a carpenter. Blinker relates more of what the men said:

“She goes into the church to pray every night at midnight, and when she got up on Epiphany night, she saw a light shining from the room overhead, and she went up her little stair to see what was the matter, and there she found the angels.”

Cecile is filled with delight at the news of the miracle, saying, “Don’t you like to know that the angels are just as near to us here as they are in France?”

Blinker turned his head, glancing all about the kitchen as if someone might be hiding there, leaned across the table, and said to her in such a mournful way:

“Ma’m’selle, I think they are nearer.”


“Jeanne’s entombment”

From here, for the next ten pages, Cather tells the story of the recluse — how she was a dazzling, intelligent young woman, set to inherit her father’s fortune, and how everyone expected her to marry Pierre Charron, a young man who worked for her father, and how she turned her back on all of that for a life of silence, poverty, isolation, prayer and her work embroidering beautiful altar cloths and vestments for churches throughout the province.

Jeanne’s entombment and her cell were the talk of the province.

The story of the angels was a joy to Cecile, and she told and retold it often as did many in Quebec, Montreal and the province on cold nights around the fireside. And, Cather writes, the story brought great pleasure:

as if the recluse herself had sent to all those families whom she did not know some living beauty, — a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit. Indeed, she sent them an incomparable gift.

In the long evenings, when the family had told over their tales of Indian massacres and lost hunters and the almost human intelligence of the beaver, someone would speak the name of Jeanne Le Ber, and it again gave out fragrance.

“Not as proof or evidence”

At the far western edge of European civilization, isolated for more than half the year from news and supplies from the homeland, battered by deep cold and heavy snows of the rough, dangerous, wild frontier, the people eking out survival relished word about the recluse and the miracle.  And Cather writes:

The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire.

In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.


“The mountain rock”

Except for a short epilogue, Shadows on the Rock is set in the city of Quebec from October, 1697, to November, 1698.  It centers on the apothecary Euclide, whose wife had died two years earlier, and his daughter Cecile who cares for him and their home behind his shop on Mountain Hill between the Upper Town and the Lower Town.

It is a novel without a plot, simply the stories of the Auclairs and people they know over the course of thirteen months living on the “rock-set town,” Quebec, the “Rock” of the title, a promontory created the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saint-Charles Rivers.

As the novel opens, Euclide is at Cap Diamant, the highest point of the promontory, watching the last of the ships leave for France, not to return for nine months and then looking out over the upper and lower portions of the city.  Quebec, he is thinking, is very much

….a mountain rock, cunningly built over with churches, convents, fortifications, gardens, following the natural irregularities of the headland on which they stood; some high, some low, some thrust up on a spur, some nestling in a hollow, some sprawling unevenly along a declivity.

The Château Saint-Louis, grey stone with steep dormer roofs, on the very edge of the cliff overlooking the river, sat level; but just beside it the convent and church of the Récollet friars ran downhill, as if it were sliding backwards.

To landward, in a low, well-sheltered spot, lay the Convent of the Ursulines…lower still stood the massive foundation of the Jesuits, facing the Cathedral. Immediately behind the Cathedral the cliff ran up sheer again, shot out into a jutting spur, and there, high in the blue air, between heaven and earth, rose old Bishop Laval’s Seminary….

Not one building on the rock was on the same level with any other — and two hundred feet below them all was the Lower Town, crowded along the narrow strip of beach between the river’s edge and the perpendicular face of the cliff.

The “Rock” of Quebec is an ever-present character in the lives of the people of Cather’s novel.


Figures from history

Several of those people are figures from history, such as:

  • Jeanne Le Ber, the recluse.
  • Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, the aging governor of the Quebec colony and Euclide’s patron from their next door homes in France.
  • Bishop Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, the “New Bishop” who, after imposing great changes on the Canadian church, spends much of his time back at the king’s court in France.
  • Bishop François de Laval, the aged but strong-willed “Old Bishop” who has to submit to the changes demanded by his successor and lead the Catholic flock in his absence.
  • Rev. Noel Chabanel, a Jesuit missionary and one of the eight Canadian Martyrs, all Jesuits, including Jean de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues.

As she did in her masterpiece Death Comes for the Archbishop, published four years earlier, Cather spends much of Shadow on the Rock looking at the movement of spirituality and faith in the lives of lay people and those in religious life.


“Repulsive and horrible to him”

In each case, she goes deep into what it meant, for instance, for the people of Canada to believe in the miracle of angels repairing the spinning wheel of the recluse, or for Chabanel, a 30-year-old professor of rhetoric who, upon arriving in the New World, found himself totally unable to learn the Huron language.  As a fellow Jesuit relates to Cecile, and her father:

“His humiliating inability to learn the language was only one of poor Chabanel’s mortifications. He had no love for his converts. Everything about the savages and their mode of life was utterly repulsive and horrible to him; their filth, their indecency, their cruelty. The very smell of their bodies revolted him to nausea. He could never feel toward them that long-suffering love which has been the consolation of our missionaries.

“He never became hardened to any of the privations of his life, not even to the vermin and mosquitos that preyed upon his body, nor to the smoke and smells in the savage wigwams. In his struggle to learn the language he went and lived with the Indians, sleeping in their bark shelters, crowded with dogs and dirty savages. Often Father Chabanel would lie out in the snow until he was in danger of a death self-inflicted, and only then creep inside the wigwam.

“The food was so hateful to him that one might say he lived upon fasting. The flesh of dogs he could never eat without becoming ill, and even corn-meal boiled in dirty water and dirty kettles brought on vomiting; so that he used to beg the women to give him a little uncooked meal in his hand, and upon that he subsisted.”

And, yet, Chabanel stayed.  He took a vow of perpetual stability to never leave his work among the Hurons.  Two years later, he died, either murdered by Indians or killed by the elements in fleeing from an attack.


Gritty and spiritual

Cather’s great skill as a novelist lies in her ability to get inside the skin of her characters and, at the same time, to let their actions speak for themselves. She does this with each of the people who populate Shadows on the Rock, even the most minor of figures.

Shadows on the Rock is richly human and humane, gritty and spiritual, alive with fortitude, faith and friendship.


Patrick T. Reardon



Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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