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A French Life: Toby the dog and a dream come true for reader Susan Keefe

Today’s post comes from the lovely Susan Keefe, author of children’s book Toby’s Tails who lives in Le Mans, Pays de Loire – home of the famous Le Mans racing events. Susan tells how she came to leave the UK for France and how she met a wonderful dog who became the star of her book…

I have been so lucky throughout my life, I had an idyllic childhood in the Essex countryside and there was much more of it then!

I’ve loved all animals but especially dogs and horses for as long as I can remember. I rode as soon as I could and we always had a dog and cat. As a teenager I finally had my own horse and felt that all my dreams had come true. If I wasn’t exploring the fields with our Labrador I was on the horse, and at school I was a member of the ornithology and wildlife groups.

I worked as a secretary until my children were born. When Chris and Michelle reached school age I managed to get a job during school hours at a plant nursery. I loved the work so took my R.H.S and qualified in Horticulture then started my own business.

My work enabled me to pay the mortgage when my marriage broke up but I decided I needed backup so qualified as a Garden Designer.

At 14 I had been on a school trip to France and fell in love with it; my one treat as a single parent was to drive my old van down to Folkestone and catch the then Sea Cat to Boulogne for the day, driving back up the M20 late the same evening.

When I remarried Michael, our honeymoon was spent in France – luckily as soon as he stepped foot on French soil he was hooked too. By the end of the honeymoon we knew we wanted to live in France.

A set of ‘fate’ circumstances meant that we were in Birmingham when a French property show was on; we attended, vaguely aiming to look at houses from the Loire to Limousin [where we had honeymooned]. Not being at all impetuous (!) one of the first stalls we came across was for a property agency in Loire, as we looked at the folders Michael saw a dull coloured property in what appeared to be a grassy meadow. It had plenty of land and sounded interesting so we decided to fly over and see it. Having made the decision to go, and as we were both self employed, we decided to take an extended Easter holiday and scheduled to look at four more houses.

To cut a long story short, we fell in love with our ruin on April 1st!

It didn’t take us long to realise that we would never have the patience to wait the five years we had planned before we could emigrate, so, we decided to move as soon as we could. The children were older and wanted to stay in the UK, so they did.

One December day 6 years ago, after many previous journeys, we loaded the last vestiges of our UK life on our already overloaded trailer, caught the two cats and sat their boxes on Sid, the Corn Snake’s vivarium, in bounded our two Lovely Golden Retrievers and off we went.

We love our life here at the lower end of the Sarthe region, just below Le Mans. The house is still a ruin but we live there and are very happy. The plant nursery where I’d trained had goats and I knew I wanted to keep some myself, so, we bought electric fencing, my dad helped with the shelter and goats and sheep arrived. The sheep were not intentional, they were there next to the goats and looked cute and with so much land, we reasoned, why not? [Ed – I know that feeling!]

Three years ago, one of our Retrievers sadly died and by chance we became the proud owners of our constant companion Toby – the Border Collie. My wonderful granddad Spore used to walk with me for miles as a child through the countryside, he taught me so much about wildlife and nature, and was a true countryman. Memories of my childhood and him were the inspiration for my book. Older now, I have realised that not all children are as fortunate as I. Looking back, having time spent with you as a child is much more important than possessions or a tidy bedroom. I was lucky, my parents and grandparents always had time for me and my siblings and being a true bookworm  I wanted to write a children’s book where the child could become ‘lost’ in the adventure.

I had never written before but one day I sat at the computer, Toby as usual wrapped around my feet in case I escaped. I started to write Toby’s Tails, the title and story tumbled out. The animal characters in the book, names and all, are real. The wildlife we meet on our walks and sometimes closer to home, local French places, events and customs are all chronicled as Toby’s first year.  The book has been very successful, my proudest moment being, when the grandmother of a little boy of 7 with ASD and ADHD contacted me and said how it was the only thing he settles to at bed time and  how he becomes absorbed in Toby’s world.

This week I have released on Amazon Kindle and soon in paperback the first in a series of Farm Stories about animals, called Fantasy Farm Tales. The first book, about a couple of young goat kids and is called Billy and Daisy’s Big Adventure. Like Toby’s Tails it has plenty of pictures of our own animals.

Writing has bought me immense joy. My inspirations are the wonderful animals we have here of all types and the incredible wildlife we are lucky enough to encounter on a day to day basis.

My dad always says you can’t live on pretty scenery, and as usual he’s right, but to be able to appreciate it is great and as someone else once said ‘Count your blessings’.

Available on Amazon
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