Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

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Book Review - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyBook Review - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Publisher: Dial Press

Genre: Historical Fiction, World War II

First Publication: 2008

Major Characters: Sophie Kintock, Juliet Ashton, Dawsey Adams, Susan Scott, Sidney Stark, Elizabeth McKenna, Isola Pribby, Markham V. Reynolds, Jr., Kit McKenna, Adelaide Addison, Eben Ramsey, Amelia Maugery, John Booker, Christian Hellman, Will Thisbee, Clovis Fossey, Thomson Stubbins, Clara Saussey, Sally Ann Frobisher

Theme: Literature and Connection; Family, Parenting, and Legitimacy; War, Hunger, and Humanity; Women, Marriage, and Work

Setting: London and Guernsey, 1946

Narrator: First person limited, told in a series of letters between various characters

 

Book Summary: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb. . . .

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

 

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Initially I was unsure whether I would like this book. The opening sections came across as rather stuffy, class-conscious English society immediately post war. The somewhat stilted, polite language, reminded me of novels of the 1940s and 50s, yet this book was published in 2008. It must have been a deliberate tactic on the part of the author, to use a formal prose style which has long gone out of fashion. But my reservations were quickly dispelled, as the story unfolded, with a lively humour emerging, as well as a little known aspect of life during second World War. And, I came to realise, the prose style was entirely appropriate for the era and the characters in the book.

This was a really clever gradual unfolding of friendship and the suffering undergone by the captive population of Guernsey during the occupation of the Third Reich during the early 1940’s. Its all recounted by letters and as a result of this I have seen it compared favourably and unfavourably to ‘ 84 Charing Cross Road ‘ and its letter technique but this is surely an unfair comparison as the latter is not a novel recounting an imagined story and imagined love and friendship which can always have twists and turns to tweak the heart strings but rather a true account through the letters of a man and women coming to sympathy and friendship through the books they hunt and find.

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

The narrative is told through a series of letters exchanged between various characters, with Juliet Ashton, successful author, as the principal letter-writer. A book once owned by Juliet finds its way to Guernsey, where it is purchased by Dawsey Adams. He writes to her to express his admiration for her work and for the author Charles Lamb. Thus the details of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (GLPPPS) begin to emerge.

Juliet expresses a desire to write an article about the Society as a ‘snapshot’ of Guernsey life during WW2. Before the islanders are forthcoming with their personal stories, she first needs to convince GLPPPS founder Amelia Maugery about her bona fides. Thus the ‘testimonials’ about Juliet are produced, giving us a picture of this thoroughly modern woman writer.

When other members of the GLPPPS start writing to her, Juliet develops a vivid picture of the community on the island. Some of the anecdotes are sad, while others are hilarious. A strong character who emerges in nearly everyone’s stories is Elizabeth McKenna, mother of 4 year old Kit, a compassionate figure who pursued truth and justice fearlessly. Juliet soon realises she has enough raw material to make a book with a compelling story.

“Think of it! We could have gone on longing for one another and pretending not to notice forever. This obsession with dignity can ruin your life if you let it.”

Underneath the oddball characters and the amusing tales is a gradually emerging account of the plight of Guernsey and its residents during the German occupation of WW2. The Channel Islands were invaded and occupied by the Nazis for several years. Cut off from England and from rest of Europe, the residents were very isolated. There was a complete ban on communications, so they received no newspapers, letters etc.

Food and other supplies were extremely scarce. Not only were the locals put under intense stress, but the limited resources were strained even further by the importation of thousands of Operation Todt workers. A kind of national service, it was in reality a form of forced labour introduced by the Nazis. The workers may have been dissident Germans, or those deemed unfit for military service, or other European nationalities pressed into involuntary service on behalf of the Third Reich.

Life in such harsh conditions tended to bring out the special personal qualities of particular individuals. Juliet’s new friends, Amelia, Dawsey, Eben and Isola, together with the missing Elizabeth, all demonstrated courage and determination to overcome the difficulties of their existence in wartime Guernsey. The narrative moves seamlessly between silly stuff, like Isola’s passion for phrenology, to the traumatic experiences at Belsen concentration camp of Remy, Elizabeth’s French friend. The author has skillfully combined humour and drama, trivia and serious stuff, in a highly entertaining and intellectually edifying novel.


 

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