This is a historical novel set in Québec at the turn of the century—18th century that is—when Quebec was a French colony and Louis XIV was king of France. For the most part, it deals with the life of an apothecary and his 12-year old daughter. The apothecary accompanied the Count of Frontenac to Québec some 8 years previously. He was in essence the personal physician to the Count, also a close neighbor and confidant. A few years after they arrive, the apothecary's wife dies, but not before, she hopes at least, her daughter, Cécile has been properly trained to keep house for her father.
We follow their lives through a calendar year and learn about the isolation of the winter when the St. Lawrence River freezes over and shipping is stopped. We learn about the lives of some of the people with whom the apothecary and his daughter interact: a fur trapper; the two bishops of the town, one rather worldly; religious mystics and missionaries; the lost son of a fallen woman; a disfigured and rather strange homeless man who makes his way doing odd jobs for food. And so forth. In a way, little happens in the book. In another way, what we have is a nice description of people's lives in that time, the people who long to return to the glorious France they have left behind and those who only know the life of the glorious New France in the wilds of Canada.
Like all Willa Cather books, this one is well written, calm and engaging. I never expected that I would ever grow up to read all of Willa Cather's works, but I expect that will soon be the case (two or three to go). And I am all the richer for it. Actually, I never expected to read any
of her books, after feeling some vague distaste for her from high-school English. I mean, what could be less cool than a spinster woman from the Midwest with a hick name like Willa? What in the hell could she know? Yeah, at 17 we definitely know more than our teachers (although I do admit that I am forever hopelessly in love with my 11th grade English teacher, Miss Garner). Whatever, someone made me read one of her books, twice actually (Death Comes for the Archbishop
). It wasn't so bad. I stumbled across a couple more at the church fair book table. They were quite good. So, now I've become rather a fan of old Willa. She is a true literary gem who deserves much more acclaim that she is now generally given.