Words on Words: An interview with the Pelletiers

8 mins read

Maine author Cathie Pelletier has published and co-authored an absolutely wonderful celebration of her father Louis’ life. A is for Allagash is told in Louis’ voice while daughter Cathie’s professional craftsmanship is evident everywhere. A coffee table ABC memoir for all ages, this book is loaded with charm, maps, period photos, and Mustard Pickle recipes. It also includes a foreward by Janet Mills of Farmington.

Each letter entry offers a portal into an aspect of life. L is for Lamp, for example, covers the role of light in the Pelletier household in the many years before electricity appeared there. This father-daughter collaboration has a warmth and authenticity, which makes it a complete pleasure to read and share. When a book is as uniquely charming as A is for Allagash appears on the scene my duty is clear: I need to provide a peek behind the curtains. Here then is an interview with Cathie and Louis Pelletier:

Cathie Pelletier

Kenny: It’s obvious that the creation of A is for Allagash involved a father-daughter team-up that was fun and dynamic. What were some of your favorite outcomes of this collaboration?

Cathie: We loved talking about the stopping blood charm, under U is for Uncle. My father believes in it fully having seen it used on a horse, as we describe in the book. I’m the “daughter;” that my great uncle taught the charm to before he died. So I cherish that sort of  oral family heirloom. I also had fun finding the poem about the outhouse. And I relived my own childhood memories of Jack Frost. But who can resist the sight of a glowing lamp in a cabin window on a cold winter’s night? T is for Tea brought back special memories of my French grandmother, too, and the times she read my fortune in the tea leaves. By the way, those are my hands holding the cup in that illustration.

Louis Pelletier

Lou: I was happy to let young people know what it was like for us to live back then. It wasn’t an easy way of life. There are so many machines now in the woods that I would hate for people to forget the days when we worked with horses and axes. Those winter days in the woods were freezing cold. Now, machines are heated and you can even listen to music as you operate them. But more than that, I liked telling people about my parents and grandparents, so they won’t be forgotten.

Kenny: When reading a good ABC book adult readers always get that pleasant anticipation towards the end as they prepare to find out how the author will handle the tricky letters like X and Z. I loved your use of ZZZZZ for sleeping. Was that original? I don’t recall seeing that before.

Cathie: That’s original as far as I know. It popped into my head in a moment of desperation. I had written a short piece 20 years ago for a recording, imaging the sounds in the woods back then, bells on horse harnesses, axes ringing against stumps. I ended with the sound of fires crackling in the stoves as men slept in their bunks. So maybe I pulled that thought from the past. I knew that ADZE had that precious Z, but snoring won out. Now I intend to use it again if I ever do another alphabet book, so consider it copyrighted.

Kenny: Were there any second place entries for letters which were a wrench not to include?

Cathie: Well, darn it, why didn’t we put wrench at the bottom of the W page? Yes, we thought of many words we’d like to use. Take R, for instance. Imagine a rainbow over the river, as a raven glides! That would have been a triple whammy. But we had to remember our artist, Lulu Pelletier, and what would be best for her to take on. She was still in school at the time. Nature is such a prevalent theme in this isolated area that we could have easily written a book of just flora and fauna. It was important to me that we not make it just a lumberjack book. So the homey images that I personally chose are closer to what my mother might have written, had she been asked for input. That made it more special. And flora and fauna, teapots and gardens are part of a lumberjack’s life, too.

Kenny: Let’s talk about one of the cornerstones of the book, Ethel’s Mustard Pickle Recipe. I admire her calling for “4 Heaping Tablespoons of Corn Starch,” rather than one-third of a cup or something more precise. Was that emblematic of Ethel?

Cathie: Oh, my gosh. That’s so funny. I wish Daddy or I were the best ones to answer this. I’m not the cook my mother was, but I’ll tell you a story and it may answer your question. Before I became vegan (and yes, Mama learned to cook with soy milk) I called from Tennessee to ask her a question. I was making her buttermilk pancakes for the first time and, even more hopeless as a cook back then, I wanted to know how much buttermilk I should add. To my horror she said, “Just keep pouring until it has the consistency of pancake batter.” On another note about that recipe, my sister Joan emailed me and asked, “Do you realize that all these years we’ve been saying ‘tumeric’ and it’s really ‘turmeric'”? I hadn’t known. Now I do.

Daddy said to tell you this: “I miss Ethel’s good cooking every day, but not near as much as I miss Ethel.”

Kenny: Thanks so much!

Team Pelletier: It was our pleasure. Thank you!

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