Culture & Conversation

A Hometown Guide to the Eastern Townships

Roads to Richmond compiles stories Nick Fonda wrote for small newspapers like Quebec Heritage News, The Record, and The Townships Outlet, interspersed with other memoir the author calls “incidental woolgathering” born of traveling the small country roads of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. This is not a reference book in the sense of possessing linear organization, but reads more like the kind of comfortable, meandering information you might glean if you visited the townships with a hometown guide.

There are idiosyncratic visits to sweet spots, local haunts, and hidden curiosities. Fonda takes us, for instance, to a stone building that houses the local private eyes, and he questions them about how they tail food saboteurs, tire slashers, thieving employees and the occasional adulterous spouse. Or he walks us through maple sugar bush to talk with a syrup producer about the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that have managed to drill little holes in his pipeline to steal the sweet sap. On another outing he takes us to an artisanal cheese-producing farmhouse where we learn details of how the producer makes banon, a fresh, herb-seasoned cheese the producer first tasted in France.

In a region whose economic structure has incorporated railroads, shoe factories and agriculture, Fonda maps a modern shift to cottage industries such as trade in wild mushrooms and medicinal plants, or the production of artisanal bread in clay ovens, and he talks to the people involved, in extensive, informative interviews.  He chronicles lives of people who came to the townships to do one thing, such as create paintings, but who ended up learning that when you live in the country you have to expand your skills and improvise if you want to make a good living. There is a familial and neighbourly feel to these gently-told stories, and a respect for the genealogy of the area. Author Alistair MacLeod has called this a book “full of specific insights into a specific place,” and adds that it possesses “both truth and charm.”

Topics run to bridges, snowstorms, agricultural statistics and other lore that can occasionally feel prosaic, and the structure winds at times like a sleepy river. The overall sense is one of easy, meandering familiarity. Roads to Richmond might be a good book to read with a quilt and a cup of tea if you feel like planning a Sunday drive through the Townships and want an insider’s take on the place before you head out.

Kathleen Winter’s novel, Annabel, was published this year by House of Anansi Press. She lives in Montreal and visits the Eastern Townships often with her husband, who grew up in Abercorn and has spent many moons working in the townships’ ski hills and maple sugar bush.

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