Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The Guernsey Literary and Potatoe Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
January 1946: writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.
I'll be fair and say I was initially not certain about how the author will pull off the story but I had just finished reading The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and was keen to try something else set in this sort of time.
I picked TGL&PPPS up with some trepidation. And within the first few pages I was utterly charmed and giggling to myself. The book is a revelation, using only letters by way of progressing the story, we are immediately thrown into the life of Ms. Juliet Ashton, who is a bit of a free spirit. A journalist and writer with great skill, slightly eccentric and utterly sweet, she lived through wartime London living in Chelsea and writing a column for The Spectator. (Her revelation as to why she broke off her engagement with a young man on the eve of him going to battle had me in stitches because really, I could understand 100% where she was coming from).
Now that the war was over she is being lauded as a great success by her publisher. She embarks on a crazy tour of the UK where she is feted and lauded. And it is during this time that she receives her first letter from Dawsey Adams, one of the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The letter is sweet and intriguing and Juliet can't help but be taken with the amazing name of their society. So she enquires for more information.
And by means of this single letter, the correspondence starts, not just between Dawsey Adams but also other members of the Society and Juliet. They speak about how the Society started (quite by accident) and about the hardships and friendships created on Guernsey when the Germans invaded. I admit that I knew very little about this and never really gave it any thought. As their stories unfolded and the humanity of the mess they found themselves in was revealed, my heart broke. I think there has been a distance between then and now that has numbed us from the reality of the war-time, so reading these small personal accounts really brought it home to me as a reader what an incredible time these people lived through.
I fell hopelessly in love with Juliet. But then I also fell in love with the characters from Guernsey. I admired their strength, their cleverness and their determination to survive in the face of such awful adversity. Their stories moved me, made me laugh and cry and giggle aloud. Here were people who felt as real as my own family and friends.
What I loved most about this book is how by focussing on books and literature this group of diverse people were brought together and it is what kept them together. Yes, they were all sharing the same hardships but their souls soared when they came together to discuss books and writing, allowing them to rise above the awfulness of their situation.
There is this one passage that really struck me and had me swallowing against a big knob in my throat. The character is not a learned man, a professional man. He is probably not a person we would think anything about because he comes across as a bit stupid and slow and even remarks about that in his letter to Juliet. But Eben Ramsey's letter to Juliet has affected me the most and it reads as follows (as he's read Shakespeare and come to - unexpectedly - like it):
"Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is, 'The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.' I wish I'd known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, planeload after planeload of them...All I could think of was, Damn them, damn them, over and over again. If I could have thought the words, 'The bright day is done, and we are for the dark', I'd have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance…"
I've not done it justice in this review, at all. I would say that this is a book about reading and books and literature and war and love and laughter. It's quite slender but it is packed full of Ms. Shaffer's love for the written word. It is deeply sad that this was both her first and her last book as she passed away in February 2008. She asked her niece Annie Barrows to help her complete the book and I have to say, it is a great loss that such a great voice has been silenced. But I am thankful that she took the chance and listened to her friends and family and wrote it because it is books like these that change the world in small important ways.
The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society is a book like no other I have ever read. I think it really has changed the way I think about WWII but it has also delighted me and given me real pleasure, making me want to press it into everyone I know's hand to read. It literally rocked my world. I hope it does the same for you.