‘Three Pines’ Series Evokes Childhood Memories

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Daughter Mere sent my Beautiful Mystery Companion a birthday present recently – a half-dozen volumes in the Inspector Armand Gamache series, written by Louise Penny. I have started reading them as well, trailing my BMC by a couple of editions. The novels are set in the picturesque village of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada. Since first publishing Still Life in 2005, she has written 17 novels with another due out next month. That’s one a year. Pretty impressive.

As Penny writes on her website: I live outside a small village south of Montreal, quite close to the American border. My husband Michael and I have long had dogs, all golden retrievers. Bonnie, Maggie, Seamus, Trudy and now Bishop. Some came as puppies, some were adopted as adults. All beloved.

Penny’s husband, a well-known pediatric hematologist and scientist, died of dementia in 2016 at 82. She says he inspired the beloved character of police Inspector Gamache. Penny, who lives in a small town south of Montreal close to the American border, patterns the village of Three Pines by taking pieces of several small towns in what is known as the Eastern Township region of Quebec. Penny, who worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company for many years, didn’t start writing novels until she was in her early 40s. But she has proven to be quite a force since then. The series has sold more than 10 million copies in North America alone and has been translated into 29 languages.

I am quite taken with this mystery series and not just for Penny’s engaging writing style and the characters she has created and brought to life. The area she describes, the French-Canadian given names and surnames, brings memories of my youth. My mother’s family was from the Sherbrooke, Canada area in Quebec, just north of the Eastern Township villages. My maternal grandparents, Joseph and Hedwig Bourque, emigrated from there in the 1920s, learning English as a second language, forever spoken with a heavy French accent. Their oldest son also was named Armand, like the inspector.

As a small child growing up in Allenstown, N.H., we visited the Quebec side of the family several times. I recall meeting my great-grandmother at least once, a tiny, distant woman who insisted on speaking only in French, though the prevailing theory was that she understood far more English than I knew French. My conversations with Great Grammy Pre’vost necessarily were limited. Mainly I knew French cusswords, acquired on the school playground from children with last names like Courtemanche, Boudreau and LeBlanc. Allenstown was filled with French-Canadian families who had emigrated south to work in the textile mills that then lined the Merrimack River, especially in nearby Manchester, providing jobs and poisoning the river with their effluent.

The trips to Sherbrooke from Allenstown seemed interminably long to a young child, sitting in the back seat with brother Scott, dodging our parents’ cigarette ashes as the flicked out the front window and flew in the back. I looked up the distance on Google Maps: 204 miles, or about three-and-a-half hours. That’s about how long it takes to get from Longview to Waco.

We surely spent the night on these marathon trips, but that detail escapes me. I recall visiting a great-uncle who had a farm with all sorts of livestock – cows, pigs, possibly sheep. Everything seemed so exotic and foreign because it was, these invariably short, fast-speaking relatives who fawned over us and plied us with delicious French food, much as Penny describes in her novels. Reading them often makes me salivate. I am pretty sure I even attempted to milk a cow on one trip, with uneven results.

The most intriguing character was Uncle Alex, who ran a bicycle repair shop and was what is now commonly called a “person of small stature.” I was more interested in watching him repair bicycles than the fact he was barely taller than me, and I was a puny 9-year-old. After all, I come from a long line of short people on that side of the family.

Reading Louise Penny’s novels evokes those memories and is strongly giving me the urge to plan a trip to Montreal and Sherbrooke, visit the Eastern Townships, maybe see if there are any distant cousins still around. I sure hope they have learned some English.

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