‘Guernsey Literary Society’ stays on the bestseller list
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Paperback, May 2009. Random House. 304 pp. $14.
By Jenni Koerner
For Salisbury Post
Mary Ann Shaffer’s “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is an insightful novel about the Nazi occupation of the English Channel island of Guernsey during World War II.
Shaffer spent years working in San Francisco bookshops and libraries, and her dream was to publish her own book one day. Several years ago, she began to write her novel of wartime Guernsey. Unfortunately, she died from cancer in February 2008, a few months before her novel’s release. However, it is comforting to know she achieved her dream by publishing this fine novel.
Set in the years after World War II, its heroine is Juliet Ashton, a London journalist who has garnered popularity through a humorous column published under a nom de plume. Now Juliet is ready to ditch her alter-ego “Izzy” and tackle something more sophisticated ó if only she can find a worthy subject.
Out of the blue, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams who lives in Guernsey, a small island between England and France. Guernsey is part of England but was occupied by Germany during World War II. Dawsey discovered Juliet’s name and address written inside a Charles Lamb book. Juliet’s curiosity is piqued when Dawsey mentions the whimsical name of the book club: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Juliet learns that the society was initially formed when some of the island dwellers were stopped by German soldiers for being out past curfew. One of them made up the book club story on the spot as an alibi for being out late. To keep their alibi credible, the islanders actually formed a book club ó the society. Through the rest of the war, they met and shared their love of books and we learn how this helped them keep their sense of humanity and dignity during desperate times when food, fuel and hope were scarce.
Juliet writes back to Dawsey and through the letters that follow, Juliet learns about many other quirky Guernsey residents. The touching and sometimes comical voices of these characters reveal how an isolated community endured years of starvation and deprivation under the control of the Third Reich.
The novel is told by a series of letters between Juliet, Dawsey and other islanders and friends. The epistolary style may seem unusual, but it is easy to follow. Eventually Juliet decides to visit Guernsey and meet her endearing pen-pals, and the book reaches a satisfying conclusion as we see how the islanders and Juliet regain hope with the end of the war.
Shaffer’s portrayal of the little-known island and the saga of its inhabitants during the German occupation is so intriguing and colorful that one may finish the book yearning to pack one’s bags and fly to Guernsey oneself to learn more about the island’s fascinating history.
Jenni Koerner owns Laughing Sky Books in downtown Salisbury.