Sunday, January 25, 2009

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

A fascinating look at an island few know much about. Beginning in 1946, just after the war, this story is told mostly through letters, so well-written it is difficult to realize it is a novel. It soon encompasses the reader to such a point that the characters become friends. Mary Ann Shaffer has obviously done a great deal of research to capture the essence so completely. By a fortunate bit of serendipity a farmer in Guernsey, Dawsey Adams, has written a letter to Juliet Ashton in London asking where he might obtain writings of Charles Lamb. He has contacted Juliet because he had an old book that had her name written inside. Juliet in the meantime has become an author in her in her own right. From this point on, communications are sent back and forth between Juliet and several people in Guernsey.

Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII and through the letters we learn how the Occupation affected the people of the island. The underlying thread is that the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into existence on the spur of the moment, when a group of friends who had gathered for an illicit dinner, were caught out after curfew. Quick-thinking Elizabeth tells them they were at a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society discussing “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” and enjoying it so much they lost track of time. This apparently appeased the patrol officer, and the Society was henceforth born, but now truthfully to read and discuss books. You will laugh over the roast pig incident and learn that a few Occupiers were even compassionate.

Guernsey was totally cut off from the rest of the world during the Occupation, which lasted 5 years, and knew nothing of what was happening in England. They were able to see some of the attacks on France from the island. Now, in 1946, they are trying to return to normal living. The correspondence with Juliet brought them to a point where the members of the Society indicated they would love to have her visit, so visit she did. The island and the people won her over and Juliet is no longer sure she wants to return to London. This is a warm, friendly, funny and compassionate story, a war story, and a love story. I found myself feeling as though I knew these people and their island personally. In fact immediately after finishing the book I went to the computer and looked up Guernsey to see this island that captured her so. Although the final work on the book was taken over by the author’s niece due to the author’s health, whatever was done by Annie Barrows fits smoothly into the whole. I loved the book beginning to end. It is very sad to realize that there can be no more stories by Mary Ann Shaffer, as this shining light has been snuffed far too soon by her death earlier this year.

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