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This week’s edition!

Out & About with Rachel Morin: Meeting Franco author Ernest Herbert

Franco friends and book lovers posed for a photo before the evening began.  Pictured l to r, Margaret Craven, Celia McGuckian, Bruce Pagliaroli, Doris Bonneau, Ernest Hebert, Author; Susann Pelletier, Denis Ledoux, Aliette Couturier and Juliana L’Heureux

I was looking forward to seeing how “Meet a Franco Author” sponsored by the Franco-American Collection’s innovative reading series at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College was going to be, starting September 23.  It sounded so interesting. I had heard so much about the first presenter, Ernest Hebert, renowned author and poet from Keene, New Hampshire.

I joined early arrivals gathered around Author Ernest Hebert.  Denis Ledoux, FAC Board Member, came forward and introduced us.  All of a sudden, I heard myself saying, “Je suis enchante du faire votre connaisance” as the author and I shook hands.  It was spontaneous and I surprised myself, hearing this stilted greeting from my decades ago LHS French classes! (Merci, Mademoiselle Boucher.)  

My jubilance was short lived as I learned later that Franco Author Hebert, by his own account, does not speak French.  He explained he was fluent in French through the age of five when he entered kindergarten at Lincoln School in Keene, where no one spoke French—not teachers, not students.  It was so upsetting to him as a young child, being unable to communicate with his classmates, that his parents spoke English only in his presence.  He never spoke French again.  English became his preferred language—his only language.

It was the same story at St. Joseph Elementary School, the only Catholic School in Keene.   The priests, curates and nuns were Irish, it was an Irish Parish School. and everyone, including the students with French names, spoke English and knew not a word of French.  It was the sign of the times, as all his school friends and buddies now spoke English only and to blend in with them, Ernie did the same. (The author kindly requested I call him Ernie.)

He tells us he tried regaining his French language in high school and college French classes,but was unsuccessful.  Ernie is not one to give up, however, so who knows one day we may attend one of his lectures and hear something different.

The audience soon settled into Hebert’s recitation of his childhood memories taken from his Memoir of My Childhood, now in progress.  He has a warm, friendly, down to earth, storytelling style of how it was growing up in a family with four boys.  His delivery was just like he was talking to you alone, as you sit having coffee together.   He also has humor thrown in, as one might expect with the antics and jostling of three male siblings.

Father, mother, four sons, aunts, uncles with nuns and priests in the family made a tight, close and loving family in the Franco-American tradition.  They knew the value of hard work and had a good work ethic as the Franco-American people are known for.

Ernie proudly told us about his mother’s brother, and leader of the family, for whom he was named after, the Right Reverend Father Joseph Ernest Vaccarest.   Father Vac, as he was known, even after he was elevated to Monsignor, became a father figure for Ernie during his father’s absence, serving in the U.S Navy during WWII.  Father Vac, a hunter and a fisherman, was Ernie’s first mentor and taught him many useful things in life.

“Father Vac wasn’t like any priest I know of today,” Ernie reminisced.  “He never talked to me as if I were a child.  He was the only adult who actually conversed with me.”  When Father Vac died suddenly of a heart attack at age 61, Ernie remembers, “Father Vac’s death was the most traumatic event of my teen years.”  Ernie was 14 at the time.

Ernie had a close relationship with his mother and read us a poem he wrote about her.  He was especially pleased when she warmly welcomed his wife Medora Lavoie into the family, embracing her as the daughter she never had.

The author knows the value of a name.  He dedicates ample time on names and their importance to him, giving examples throughout his presentation.  He is very proud of his Hebert name and grew up with the pronunciation “Hee-bert” in Keene.  He paid particular attention to the different pronunciations of Hebert in the many places he lived or worked, or in his and Medora’s travels. We loved hearing these pronunciations!  Ernie ended with his favorite where they lived six winters:  New Orleans, Louisiana!  “Ay-bare, that’s a fine South Louisiana name” a co-worker would often say.  Ernie then said to us, “Nobody in my part of New Hampshire ever said ‘Hebert, that’s a fine New England name!’”

 There are so many treasured and poignant memories in his memoir, which bears having Hebert return so others may have the opportunity to hear him speak again.  The author remained with the audience for a question and answer session and a personal talk as well.

Herbert is a well-known Franco-American author and poet. His inaugural novel “Dogs of March”, the first in a series of six books that take place in the fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire, created a stir when it was published in 1979.  The following books completed the series: “A Little More Than Kin”, “Whisper My Name”, “The Passion of Estelle Jordan”, “Live Free or Die”, “Spoonwood”, and “Howard Elman’s Farewell”.  The books were very well received and were among his notable works, as well as his poetry publications.  Hebert has also written several stand-alone novels, including “Mad Boys”, “The Old American”, “The Contrarian Voice” and other poetry books.

Hebert is graduate of Keene High School and Keene State College, where he met his wife, Medora Lavoie.  Following graduation and their marriage, Hebert began working as a journalist for several newspapers during this time period, including The Keene Sentinel Newspaper, New Hampshire Business Magazine, The New Hampshire Times, and The Boston Globe. In 1972, he won two Journalism Excellence Awards from United Press International. 

In addition to his writings, Hebert was a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College for over 25 years before retiring.  Hebert was the first faculty member at Dartmouth College in Hanover to be tenured as a fiction writer.

Due to the prolific nature of his writing career, much of Hebert’s work has been donated to university archives in New Hampshire.  Dartmouth College houses his earlier work relating primarily to his Darby Series of novels. Keene State College, his alma mater, additionally has a collection which includes Hebert’s digital artwork, original galleys of his novels, and early drafts of his books.

The Franco-American Collection’s innovative reading series, “Meet A Franco Author”, will next host Susann Pelletier on Monday, November 25, at 7 p.m. in Room 170 at USM LA College.  She will read from her books of poetry, “Immigrant Dream” and “The Unheeded Eden.”  More information will be released in November.

“Meet a Franco Author” is free of charge, thanks to a generous grant from the Québec Delegation in Boston.  It is open to the public—Franco-Americans and Francophiles alike.

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