Thursday, November 09, 2006

Surprising Shadows: Denny Discovers a Willa Cather Novel He Likes

Willa Cather is not one of my favorites. In fact, the only times I’ve read her novels is when I’ve been required to – once in university and the others when a Cather title overcomes my courteous (but committed) opposition and makes it onto the Notting Hill Napoleon reading list. The latter has happened at least three or four times – an example of the costs of democracy, I suppose – and though I’ve found enough to like (and perhaps even find admirable) in her books, I’ve never even thought of re-reading her.

And then, for last week’s book club meeting, I read Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, her character-driven look at 17th Century Quebec.

Imagine – surprises at my advanced age.

I really liked it.

No, I'm afraid it doesn’t change my mind about Willa Cather's other novels but Shadows on the Rock may well be one I pick up again sometime. Claire (herself a fan of Cather) supposed it was my historian background that made this one attractive to me. I’m sure she’s right – at least partially – for Cather obviously had done her homework well. Sure, there’s a few anachronisms regarding specific people but the culture, the ideals, and the mood of New World pioneers, Cather treats brilliantly. I often felt that I was visiting some kind of “living theater” when reading the book, so vivid and entertaining was the setting. Really first rate.

However, it was the splendidly crafted characters within the pages of Shadows on the Rock that really made this one a winner for me. They were complex and colorful, certainly, but Cather went beyond creating characters that I became interested in – she created characters that I really cared about.

Now, regular visitors to The Book Den know that my reviews try to avoid telling people too much about the book in question. I hate to give anything away. This is pretty easy to avoid with Shadows on the Rock because, to be frank, it is a novel without very much of a plot at all. But, don’t make the wrong assumption. That is in no way a weakness of the novel. No, Willa Cather isn’t trying to tell a story. She’s introducing you to a time and place far removed from yours. And there she introduces you to Euclide Auclair, the very independent, philosophic, warm-hearted apothecary of Quebec; his tender, idealistic young daughter, Cecile; the hungry, mistreated little boy, Jacques, who finally finds friends and purpose; the compelling and very inspirational figure of Bishop Laval; the bold trapper and adventurer, Pierre Charron; and many more, including what could be rightly considered a key character itself, the then-new settlement of Quebec.

So no, an intricate plot isn't necessary when one has such captivating people to hang out with. But for those of you who insist on a storyline, don’t worry; there’s enough of one to satisfy you.

But for me, it remains Willa Cather’s fascinating cast of Quebecois that made this such a richly delightful read. And it is in their honor that I have no qualms about recommending Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock to others.