[SWP: Behind the Book] My Search for Three Pines
Written by
Celine Keating
January 2015
Written by
Celine Keating
January 2015

Most literary pilgrimages are to where an author has lived or worked; mine involved an imaginary place.

Canada's Eastern Townships, L'Estrie, the region of Québec less than two hour' south of Montreal and just over the border from Vermont, is an area rich in beauty, culture, and history. After the American Revolution, some who were loyal to the crown fled north and settled among the Québécois and the English, Scottish, and Irish settlers. From this mix come lovely juxtapositions: Both French and English are spoken here, and the towns display the sloping metal roofs of the Quebecois as well as the pale rose brick homes of the Loyalists. In this rolling countryside of apple orchards, lakes, and forests, you're never far from a crisp baguette, Farmhouse cheese, excellent wine, or specialty chocolate.

There is much to attract the visitor, but that's not why I talked my husband into traveling to the Townships. I was drawn by the novels of award-winning, best-selling author Louise Penny, whose work is a paean to the area, and to the alluring hamlet in which she sets her mysteries. In Three Pines, homes face each other around a green jewel of a town square, the pond ices over for winter frolicking, and mysterious forests envelop all in a protective embrace. Evil comes to this world—these are murder mysteries, after all—but there's always time to gather in the bistro for warm croissants and camaraderie.

I went in search of Three Pines.

Penny writes that Three Pines can only be found by those who are lost, that it does not appear on any map, but I was undaunted. Like her main character, Chief Inspector Gamache, I sniffed for clues. In A Fatal Grace, Penny writes of an old stone mill and an abandoned railroad station; in The Brutal Telling, the Riviere Bella Bella flows. An old stagecoach road, a lake, and other features are variously mentioned. But the constants were these: The village, hidden among hills and forests, occurs where four roads come together ''like the spokes of a wheel'' [Still Life]. And at one end of the commons stand three majestic pines.

We decided that we would circumnavigate the outskirts of the Townships and then spiral in, as if drawing a noose ever tighter around PennyLand, an area comprising roughly a quarter of the 5,000 square miles of the Townships. Its bull's eye was the town of Sutton, where, as I learned through her blog, the author has a home. Somewhere in PennyLand, I was convinced, would be the real town upon which Three Pines is based.

We drove over the border from upstate New York into Canada, stopping in Venice du Quebec at the head of Lake Champlain, and then headed east along a hilly road through a chain of tiny villages just skirting Vermont—Saint Armand, Abbott's Corner, Mansonville—mostly farmland rather than the woods and mountains of Penny's landscape. When we reached the eastern edge of the Townships, we headed north along the shores of sparkling Lake Memphramagog to the funky tourist town of Magog. Driving down the other side of the lake, to Ayer's Cliff and Georgeville, we came upon a stunning view of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, the Benedictine Abbey that was the inspiration for the abbey in The Beautiful Mystery.

In A Rule Against Murder, Inspector Gamache stays at the remote Manoir Bellechase. Through careful research and clever deduction (i.e., reading the book's acknowledgments), I deduced that the model for the boutique hotel was Manoir Hovey in the town of North Hatley, where brunch surpassed even Penny's mouthwatering descriptions. As I wandered the gardens and lawns overlooking Lake Massawippi, I could feel Gamache's presence at my side, staring out at the water ringed by dark forest.

We reached bustling Cowansville, on the western edge of the Townships, and dined at a breakfast spot we had learned was frequented by the author, then circled in to Lac Brome (Knowlton), where I purchased a Gamache mug at the local bookshop that hosts Penny's book parties. At a cheese shop in Sutton, La Rumeur Affamée, the owner told us that there was someone in town many thought to be the model for Penny's endearing character Olivier. The second we left the shop my husband and I turned to each other and said, ''It's him!''

Sutton and Lac Brome, though quaint with shops, art galleries, B&Bs, and requisite stream and lake, respectively, were too large to be the real Three Pines. Frelighsburg, with its grassy town center, and Stanbridge East, with its beautiful old mill, felt closest in spirit, but were missing other key elements. Dunham, Lac Selby, West Brome, Sutton Junction: some were near mountains or ringed by forest, some had a covered bridge or bistro, bookstore, or a boulangerie. The architectural details Penny mentions were in evidence everywhere, like the loggia house style with a balcony built on a gable wall over an open-type porch with pillars, and we even spotted a sign for the old stagecoach road. But at some point we realized that there wasn't one—not one of the dozens of villages we visited—that was formed at the juncture of several roads or that had a central commons. And few had any pines at all.

Our map was so detailed the roads looked as fragile as eyelashes. We drove every last lash until we were retracing our steps, heading down rutted dirt roads and into private driveways, making sure we hadn't overlooked a possibility. Then we learned that for a television movie made by Canadian Broadcasting Corp. of one of her books, filming had taken place in several different villages because Penny couldn't point to a prototype. After a week of travel we headed home frustrated and disappointed, despite having fallen in love with the area.

Of course I knew all along that Three Pines doesn't exist. Writers of fiction use snippets of the real the way birds use stray bits of grass, ribbon, or twigs to form their nests. Penny has taken the mansard roofs from one town, the old railroad station from another, the pond from yet another, and created of these elements her Shangri-La. But while the writer in me understood that, the reader, seduced by her fiction, was intent on seeking entrée to the special place that inspired her. For that's the power of fiction.

In an article on literary tourism, Sam Anderson writes, ''Literature, for all its power, is an abstract transaction: A reader gives time and attention, an author gives patterns of words that call up vivid people and landscapes that—mystifyingly—are not physically there. . . . It seems like a natural human response to try to plug that gap—to look for solid, real-world corollaries for those interior landscapes. . . . It's the brain’s attempt to anchor an abstraction, to make the spirit world and the boring world finally align. It is, in my experience, one of the cheapest forms of magic available.''*

Once home, there was one consolation. I opened Penny’s just published novel and returned to Three Pines. Once again, in some invisible space, an author and a reader's imaginations colluded to create a world.


*“The Pippiest Place on Earth” (The New York Times magazine, February 12, 2012).

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  • Kathy Purc

    You may be interested to know that in the old part of Quebec City, there is a Inspector Gamache tour of the various historic buildings and sites used by Louise Penny as the setting for one of her mysteries. I don't remember the title. I've been to St. Benoit du Lac, too. We have skiied at nearby Owl's Head Resort for the past three years and bring home cheese, chocolates, etc from the Abbey. The area has a wonderful feel to it especially for Gamache fans. Lovely post, thank you.