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Patterson author turns to family roots for first novel

Imagine a murder in a small-town Nevada restaurant and boarding house. Populate it with Basque sheepherders, their landowning bosses, the women who cook for them and colorful community members. Add a beleaguered Nevada sheriff, spice it up with a clever young narrator and there you have Elizabette Guecemburu’s deliciously readable mystery novel. 

Patterson’s Guecemburu (pronounced “Guess - am - BOO - roo” and roll that “r!”) describes her recently published book, “Murder at the Boardinghouse,” as “Agatha Christie meets a Basque boarding house with a precocious 14-year-old main character.” The book won the Basque Writing Contest out of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Center for Basque Studies. 

Guecemburu’s mother’s grandparents immigrated from the French Basque region and began farming in Patterson, and her father immigrated in a later wave, so she grew up immersed in Basque language and culture. Her book is a love letter to her Basque family, community and roots. 

“In reading how something feels, smells, tastes… all of those things are what connect to memory, and that is for me what this book was so much about - memory and memorializing.” Guecemburu relied on the lived experiences of her Basque community to make the Gardenerville, Nevada Basque boardinghouse jump off the pages of her book.  

Guecamburu’s quirky 14-year-old protagonist, Anna, helps her widowed mother prepare food for the boarders and guests and describes meals that make your mouth water - lamb shank stuffed with garlic, bakailoa (a salted cod dish) with boiled potatoes and piperade on top, leek potato soup, chicken and rice, and the young heroine’s favorite, beef tongue with garlic and parsley in a wine vinaigrette. “My great grandmother was a cook in a Gardernerville, Nevada boarding house, and she was a big inspiration for the story.” 

Basque language is sprinkled throughout the book, and Guecamburu (who says her Basque is now limited to “getting by at the dinner table.”) relied on familial experts to perfect it. Her cousin’s husband and her dad helped her fine tune the language. “I would say my dad’s Basque is very similar to how it is in my book along with some of my mom’s family’s Basque.”  The unique language is not related to any other Indo-European language and is still spoken in the Basque homeland, located in Northern Spain and Southern France near the Pyrenees Mountains and the Bay of Biscay.

Guecamburu augmented her own experiences and community anecdotes in “Murder at the Boardinghouse” with a deep dive into the historical weather, news, music, movies, cars of the early 1940s.  “I wanted there to be references that people would recognize,” so Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” plays constantly on the radio and Anna moons over Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday.”

According to Guecamburu anyone coming from an immigrant background can find something to relate to in her book, “You come to a new country and maintaining your bonds with your community is how you survive in a new world…getting a job, getting your visa…all of the steps. It’s a lot to immigrate to another country without having a set community to receive you, and I think that did make a big difference for the Basques in that we had a very well-established community that welcomed and aided the new generation.” 

“Boarding houses were a major part of the immigrant community.  They were the central hub. Everybody would go there. That would become their home away from home.” One fan who grew up in a boardinghouse and currently owns one in Gardenerville said that the book encapsulates the 1940s boardinghouse life. “I did my job in leaving this piece of life behind that somebody could pick up and know what that felt like,” Guecamburu proudly reflects.

There were Basque boardinghouses in San Francisco, Stockton, Sacramento, Fresno and many other western cities, and you can still dine at Wool Growers Restaurant in Los Banos, (where Guecamburu’s Aunt Annie worked) built in 1890. The bartender serves Picon Punch, a favorite of many of the characters in Guecamburu’s book, and guests feast on traditional French Basque food at family style tables with red and white checkered tablecloths.  

Like her main character, Guecamburu loves Agatha Christie’s novels and started checking them out at the Patterson Library as a young girl.  “We used to go to the library and I’d check out a pile of books. Summer break, Easter break, Christmas break…. I’d start the book on the top of the pile, and when I was done I’d throw it on the ground and start the next and the next.  My mom loved a murder mystery, so I started reading those.”

The larger Patterson community has known the author for years as a regular columnist in the Patterson Irrigator where she has written about “community events, local stuff, whatever interests me…very much a smorgasbord of randomness - politics, social commentary, a lot of disability awareness and advocacy…with a twist.  I’m a little bit sarcastic.” 

Guecamburu writes about disabilities through a personal lens.

Doctors diagnosed her with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when she was two, and she has been a wheelchair user ever since. “When you have a rare condition like mine, it can be very isolating.” Through social media Guecamburu has been able to connect with the wider SMA community and says, “It is definitely a blessing being able to be connected and also advocate together.” 

Currently, Guecamburu is particularly focused on enjoying the publication of her first book and connecting with her readers.  “I’m very excited to share this book now after all of the writing and the process and the publishing. It’s very exciting to have it out as a THING. It was the right story at the right time in the right place.”

According to her website, Elizabette Unplugged, “Murder at the Boardinghouse” is available on Amazon and at the Patterson Family Pharmacy, or you can order a signed copy at