I wrote the reflection for the book I chose this year: Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock. I include the text. I think a favorite part was that enjoyed speaking about my father a little bit...
Keeping the Home-Fires Burning:
the crucial role of Cécile Auclaire
By Ana Braga-Henebry, M.A.
When I first read Shadows on the Rock, I was deeply moved. I had a bunch of little kids then, and reading provided me with the best entertainment during those few bits of time I had for myself, stolen away from kitchen, daily lessons, laundry, and husband. Perhaps because I had visited Quebec previously, that French-Canadian world came easily, vivid, in my imagination. The side anecdotes of what the missionary priests had endured in the wilderness made the book an unforgettable read for me… and Cécile. I shall never forget how the girl of twelve takes the reader of this remarkable book into a world of adult hardships, politics, and sacrifice.
Indeed, through this loving household—the young housewife and her father, an apothecary—Willa Cather brings alive a world of the past in a manner I have seldom experienced. That world was apparently dominated by strong male characters: the king, the count, the archbishop, the missionary priests, and the fur trappers. Yet Cather chooses a young girl to open for us the door into Quebec daily life in the late 1600s.
Cécile is so very young. When Shadows on the Rock opens, her mother has died and Cécile lives with her dad. She has left the Ursulines’ girls school to take care of the home, doing the chores that used to be her mother’s. She is still a child and enjoys some of the excitement of childhood, but at the same time, she must act well beyond her years. She has suffered the loss of her mother and baby brother and her father, the royal apothecary in Quebec, must rely on her. They both get along, lovingly and beautifully. She prepares his meals, stresses the need for proper dinner attire, and makes a home for both of them in every little way. The love between father and daughter is touching, respectful, compassionate, and one of the most beautiful aspects of this marvelous book. Throughout the book we find sweet moments such as this one:
He placed it in the cabinet where he kept his medical books, then went into the salon and sank down in his chair by the fire. Cécile knelt on the floor beside him, resting her arms upon his knee. He bent and leaned his cheek for a moment on her shingled brown hair.
I have loved the writing of Willa Cather since our family lived in Nebraska. During those years, my husband and I read quite a bit of her work, and were enchanted especially by her two Catholic books, the marvelous and unique Death Comes to the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. I have often wondered how Cather came to be so knowledgeable of things Catholic: history, hierarchy, sacramental life. For years I had liked to believe that Sigrid Undset, whose masterwork Well-Read Mom members read in the first year, had influenced her. The Norwegian author Undset was a Nobel Prize winner in 1928 and a convert and ardent Catholic, and met Cather while in self-exile in NYC during WWII. The two writers became dear friends, but I was wrong in my supposition: Death was written prior to their meeting. In researching for this reflection, I dug deep online and lo and behold, I found a paper by Professor Danker of SDSU entitled “Willa Cather’s French Neighbors”! So the mystery was solved: the author grew up in a small town populated by French-Canadians! The stories and characters in her Catholic books were taken from real people! Indeed she visited their homes and lived among their families!
Inasmuch as the side anecdotal stories fill the novel with wonder, history, and beauty, it is young Cécile who anchors the book. Even if she falls back to the background in the epilogue, her daily work both in the home and in the community shapes the book’s soul. I discussed Shadows with a dear friend, a young priest and fellow Cather-admirer. In our conversation, he reminded me of the behind-the-scenes role that Cécile plays. A role that women have played in history from time immemorial, a role essential for humanity and for civilization. She not only makes a home, in every sense, for their little family—caring for the little things that kept culture and civilization alive—but also from this home she causes Love to radiate outward. The stability and bounty of their home spreads out to shelter and feed the poor old man, the little wayward boy, and all who come visit. Her home is a tangible model of what the Family is called to be by God: a cell of society, spreading Love and Light.
Why do the townsfolk delight in calling upon the apothecary? Because therein they find a gentleman and a man of science who applies his art with skill, tenderness, and devotion? Certainly. But there is more. Whether they are able to articulate it or not, they delight in being received with dignity and respect into his home—and the existence of a home presumes a homemaker. In her careful, diligent, and pious (in the sense of “Pious Aeneas”) way, Cécile keeps the home-fires burning—not only literally, but also in the sense of being herself a little “light to lighten the darkness” of the pioneer days of Quebec.
As a homemaker, young Cécile’s daily work has a rippling, positive effect into many of the characters’ lives. And yet this is not the only way we see the protagonist at work in the novel. Cécile is also the faithful assistant of her father in the Apothecary’s business. Euclide Auclaire trusts her to be his right-hand helper, delivering medications and medical information. At twelve years old, she is a competent and reliable worker. She also shown as an admirer of her father’s medical stances, sometimes against much criticism. Euclide is a responsible, thoughtful, and dedicated professional, and in every way, Cécile is his companion, helper, and friend.
My own father and I were very close. As seventh of his numerous children, I like to think that I was in a way his most ardent admirer at home. I learned so much from following him around the house as a child, being his faithful assistant as Cécile was with Euclide, and had long conversations with him in my youth. Just over one year ago I was the one with him as he passed from this life to eternity. I will be forever thankful for this privilege. I missed my own dear mother’s passing due to distance, so with my father I enjoyed being present as Peace filled the room and, on my knees, tears rolling, I thanked God for his long and faithful life.
Cécile and Euclide Auclaire, along with Laura Ingalls and Pa, Jo and Mr. March, and Lizzy and Mr. Bennett, form one of the most endearing Father-Daughter duos I have encountered in literature. Shadows On the Rock by Willa Cather is an unforgettable book because it brings forth a strong, determined and hard-working female main character, it touches on the interior life of virtue and faith, and it portrays the effects of family love in society.
Ana Braga-Henebry leads two WRM books clubs one hour apart from each other, and is constantly amazed at the range of complexity of responses and difference in opinion between the two of them. Ana received a Master’s degree in Humanities/Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, where she studied Art and translated religious Brazilian Poetry among other things. She has seven children ranging from 14 to 27 with her husband Geoffrey, a scientist and academic with a Great Books background. They make their home in Laura Ingalls country, SD, where local people are welcoming, and the winters brutal. Ana has written reviews, plays and articles for a myriad of periodicals over the years. Most recently Ana wrote the chapter on Geography in the recently published book Why Should I Learn This? edited by Maureen Wittman and Erin Brown-Conroy. She publishes occasional personal reviews and other writings in a personal blog entitled Ana Braga-Henebry’s Journal.