Once in a great while, a novel actually warrants its spot on the New York Times bestseller list. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is one. Written by an aunt and niece team, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, it is a rare gem.
A London writer, Juliet Ashton, the columnist “Izzy Bickerstaff” during the Second World War is casting about for the subject of her next book. January 12, 1946 she receives a letter from Mr. Dawsey Adams, a farmer in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey. Dawsey got Juliet’s name and address from the inside front cover of a book he read written by Charles Lamb. (Said book having once belonged to her.) From this inauspicious beginning a story unfolds which enveloped me, drew me so completely into a world of people I wanted to know, spend time with, and most of all, discuss literature with — all the while eating potato peel pie — as it did with Juliet Ashton.
Guernsey, an island in the nethermost reaches of the English Channel spent five years under German occupation. During that time, residents received no news from the outside world, including news of their children whom they’d evacuated to the mainland.
One night, following a delicious (and forbidden roast pig dinner) the attendees were stopped by a German patrol for breaking curfew. With six German guns pointed directly at her, one young woman wove a story of how sorry she was they’d broken curfew, but the evening’s discussion at the Guernsey Literary Society of Elizabeth and Her German Garden had been so delightful, they lost track of time. Had the officer read this wonderful book? Nodding and laughing, the officer let them go. The next day, after each paid their fines, they rounded up as many books as they could while notifying other islanders of the “society.” Having no experience with literary societies, they made their own rules. Ostensibly they “read books. talked books, argued over books and became dearer and dearer to one another.”
Written in letter format, I was privy to watching a diverse group of neighbors and acquaintances learn about one another, came to care for one another, and together “could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside.”
The characters are types, not stereotypes. Even through their letters, they become multifaceted, “real” persons … many of whose “types” we know. A few come to mind.
One member wouldn’t attend without “eats.” Using mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness and potato peelings for crust, he created the potato peel pie. The group quickly became “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”
The island “heroine,” who stood up to the German patrol, was the unifying presence of the islanders. She accepted love when it came, without regard of its packaging. She was courageous and remained true to her beliefs and values when put to the test.
The quiet man who spoke little, saw much and did much.
Another was determined to improve herself. While throwing herself whole-heartedly into each venture, they never turned out as expected. Each time she moved on, it was because she thought her abilities lacking. Yet, as an outsider privy to the letters, I saw she actually accomplished a lot.
There was the woman who insisted on passing judgment on all those around her.
The woman who hosted the meetings I envisioned as short, stout and large bosomed. I could imagine being enfolded in her motherly embrace.
The love-child-orphan being reared and doted upon by the literary society members.
A man who was a great match. A great catch. And yet, understandably, not right for Juliet.
Prior to her 2008 death, Mary Ann Shaffer wrote in the book’s acknowledgment: “I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art–be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music–enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”
The book was published in 2009. If you’ve read this book, it’s well worth reading again. (The audio version is also well done.) If you haven’t read the book, it’s a treat waiting for you.
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