Historical novel set in Quebec City in the year 1697, when the settlement was just a small town on the frontier. The story follows Cecile, a 12-year-old girl whose father is the apothecary (similar to a doctor). Not much plot happens, rather, the novel is based on characters: we get to hear stories from all sorts of people in society as they visit the apothecary and have a chat with the father.
At the time, Quebec was not yet self-sufficient, and most people still had family ties to France. However, the St. Lawrence river was frozen for the duration of the winter, so after the last ships left in fall, there were no more supplies or news from home until next spring. The novel displays the feeling of desolation upon seeing the last ships depart, the excitement of seeing the first ships arrive again, and the dread of hearing from a letter in the fall that a family member is sick but having to wait for months for more news of whether they’re okay.
Religion plays a major role throughout society: several characters are priests and bishops, and there are many references to Catholic church customs. We get to see the importance of religion when a trapper lays dying in the wilderness, and his friend makes an arduous journey to bring a priest for last rites before he dies. Other events are somewhat bizarre, like a young woman who locks herself for life in a monastery in an act of religious devotion and self-denial.
Cecile and her father are relatively well-off, but this is not the case for everyone in town. She is friends with a smaller boy Jacques, son of a poor single mother, and in one chapter she goes around town trying to find shoes for the boy. In another chapter, Cecile makes a trip to a family in Ile d’Orleans, but is appalled at the living conditions there.
The novel illustrates what the pioneers’ lives were like in the early days of Canada’s first colony. The author lived much later than the events depicted (the novel was published in 1931) and there’s not much literature actually written during that time. Several of the characters were real people, such as Count de Frontenac (governor of the colony and financially supports the apothecary) and Bishop Saint-Vallier (a materialistic man heavily disliked by the colonists).