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Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
Vintage Books
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This delightful story traces a year in the life of Cecile Auclair, a devout girl of twelve, who lives with her father, the apothecary and physician for the governor of New France. The setting is 17th century Quebec, a French settlement built atop a bare grey rock overlooking the St. Lawrence River. For many of its inhabitants it is a place of exile, cut off from the rest of the world during the long winter months, but for Cecile the rock is home.

The story begins with a note of sadness as the last ship sails for France and the long winter begins. Cecile’s days are busy ones and she takes pleasure in preparing tasty meals for her father and keeping the rooms behind the shop clean and beautiful, maintaining the customs and manners of life as it was in France. The winter months are spent looking after Jacques, the neglected child of an immoral woman in the village, visiting the Reverend Mother Juschereau at the Hotel Dieu and the Count de Frontenac in the governor’s palace. She learns that the stern old Bishop Laval is really very kind and she and Jacques are invited to visit him in his garden.

Central to the plot is the long standing feud between the two bishops, old Bishop Laval, stern, austere, concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock and his successor, Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier, selfish, worldly and desirous of obtaining the comforts and luxuries of life. Pierre Charron, the French Canadian born trapper who provides strength and support to Cecile and her father in times of need also plays an important role.

As the year ends Cecile’s father is happily preparing to return to France with the Count who has been expecting his recall from some time. Cecile is saddened at the thought of leaving the home she loves and is concerned about leaving Jacques with no one to look after him. However the summons to France does not come and the death of the Count casts Euclide Auclair into hopelessness and deep despair. The unexpected and timely return of Pierre Charron, their strong and devoted friend, brings joy and restores hope for the future.

The epilogue reveals a humble and chastened Bishop Saint-Vallier who returns to Quebec after an absence of many years with plans to live in a small apartment at the Hopital General serving as chaplain for the remainder of his life. He finds Euclide Auclair preparing to visit his grandsons, and the children of Cecile and Pierre Charron.

Strong points:

  • The story portrays homemaking as a pleasant and gratifying vocation.
  • It encourages virtuous acts of unselfishness and charity in young girls.
  • It provides many examples of great devotion and sacrifices for the faith as exemplified in the lives of Bishop Laval and the recluse, Jeanne Le Ber.
  • The book contains many passages beautifully written in French, which contribute to the enjoyment and charm of the story and may create a desire in the young reader to study the language.


The circumstances in which the two women, ‘Toinette Gaux, La Grenouille, mother of Jacques, and L’Escargot conduct their business should be handled discreetly by the teacher.


This is a wonderful story to study with young girls giving them an example of a truly Catholic girlhood where simple pleasures provide happiness and the importance of family is emphasized.

The book provides an excellent source for preparing a written composition introducing comparison and contrast as suggested by the lives of the two bishops or the apothecary and the French trapper, Pierre Charron.