Thursday, November 20, 2008

review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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

It is London, January 1946, and the war is over. The years of fear, and death, and bombings are over and England is anxious to start moving on. Oddly for our heroine, writer Juliet Ashton, the war was a rather good time for her career. She had written a column for a newspaper about the exploits of one Izzy Bickerstaff during the war and now the tales of Izzy have been turned into a successful book, published by her friend Sidney Stark. Sidney is the recipient of the first letter from Juliet in this book, a book that is composed entirely of letters.

Juliet is in search of a subject for her next book and not very hopeful, until she receives a letter that, unexpectedly, will do more than just provide a new subject but will change the course of her life. The letter is from a farmer, Dawsey Adams, on the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, about 30 miles off the coast of France. He has found her name in a used book and writes to ask her help in obtaining more books by the author Charles Lamb. In the letter he mentions how this book, and other books, came to mean so much to a group of the islanders, called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, during the war. Guernsey was the only British soil occupied by Germany during the war and because all communication with England was cut off, the war experiences of the islanders is pretty unknown. And, of course, Juliet is intrigued by the rather unusual name of this Society and so begins a series of correspondence with members of this literary group and a few other Guernsey residents.

Hitler was obsessed with the occupation of Guernsey and fortified the small island from recapture by the British beyond all reasonable lengths. To do so, he build huge fortifications, gun battlements and tunnels along the coastline and to build them imported slave laborers, mostly from eastern Europe and maintained a large force of soldiers on the island. Food, especially meat, and other necessities like soap and fuel for heat became increasing scarce. Curfews were imposed, every animal produced sent to feed soldiers on the mainland. It was to be these two things from which the was born the Society . It is also how we first hear of Elizabeth McKenna, who is to be the central character of this tales in many ways, even though she never actually makes an appearance.

It is Elizabeth who draws together the first members of the Society to share the dinner feast of a hidden pig..and it is Elizabeth who creates the excuse of the book group when they are caught after curfew and whose story saves them from jail...or worse. Because while the war will prove to bring out the best traits and selflessness in some people, it will bring out the worse in others. Collaboration with the Nazis was not uncommon and some two thousand of the residents of Guernsey ended up in mainland concentration camps, many turned in for violations by their own neighbors.
It was a time of terrible choices. One discussed in the letters creates an image that sticks with me. Knowing that invasion was imminent, the island government asked for help from the British to sail thousands of the island's children to England, where they would be sent to rural, and hopefully safer, homes for the duration of the war. Just imagine being a parent, having to make the decision to put your little child, all alone, on a boat, to sail off to who knows where, for who knows how long, with just a tag with their name on it around their neck. Or to decide not to, and subject the child to what unknown horrors after the invasion. The description of those real events is, I think, one of the most moving in the book and one of several times in the story that shows good people having to make very difficult and terrible decisions in terrible times.

Not to say that this is book is all about war and horror and loss...because it is certainly not. It is also a story, at time quite humorous, about love and friendship and about the importance of beauty and art and books. Oh, our old friends. While the Society begins as a cover, it becomes a real and soon growing group of people who become friends and for many, have their first introduction to the wonders of books and reading. Books were very scarce, many having been ripped up to burn as fuel after all the island trees were cut down and burned, so each member is given a book to read from the limited supply and then talks about at the society's meetings. As well as sharing a 'treat' like a slice of that potato peel pie. It seems often each reader ends up with just the perfect book, although perhaps it is not so random. As Juliet writes in an early letter to Dawsey, “Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”

I think that for many people The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will prove such a book. It is a very nice and positive book and while not terrible short, at 278 pages, it is so well written and so interesting what it seems to just fly by as your read it. Not to say it is perfect. I found the whole story line about Isola and her letters a bit unnecessary and out of keeping with the feeling of the rest of the book...a bit too much madcap comedy chase for me...but that is a minor complaint.
This is a very nice story, well written, with excellent characters and tell a bit of the fascinating and moving story of the Bailiwick of Guernsey during WWII. It would really make you want to go off and do some addition research about Guernsey and make you wish you could visit the beautiful island described.

This is another book that would make a wonderful choice for that holiday gift buying list, but just remember, to quote the often amusing Isola, “ Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.” Wait...maybe that is not a bad thing!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society available from Amazon


  1. I'm glad to see you liked Guernsey, too!

  2. Yes, I finally had to risk toppling the TBR pile, crushing myself and my imaginary cat, Kitty, and dig it out and read it. I think I fell in the group that is a little wary of all the hype and great reviews and fearing I would not like it.

    Happily, as is often true, I was wrong. ;-)

  3. Caite - your only criticism of the book was my only complaint, as well (great minds think alike!). I loved the book, though, and it makes the top 5 of the year for me.

    Loved the review!

  4. Great minds! you are totally

    But I am happy to know someone else thought the same...I wondered if it had anything to do with the niece's imput...but it just felt 'off' to me. A minor issue in an enjoyable book

  5. Great review! Eloquently said. It makes my top 5 list also. Loved it! When I told my niece about it being in epitolary form, she suggested a book she got at a yard sale, The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd, I think was the author. I got it from the library and it was really good. One book leads to another and another ... so many books so little time.

  6. You are so right! It is a terrible thing...and a wonderful thing.


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