The reasons people join book clubs are numerous --- to meet people, to find common bonds through literature, to share neighborhood gossip, to exchange favorite authors or dessert recipes. But perhaps no reading group has had a genesis as dramatic as the one that gave birth to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands, nominally part of Great Britain but located in the English Channel, close enough to see mainland Europe with the naked eye. And, as the residents of Guernsey discover during World War II, close enough for the Germans to occupy. What started out as a layover during an intended full-out invasion of the British Isles resulted in a five-year occupation that changed the lives of these quiet, simple people forever.
In the novel, the title literary club is formed, literally, in self-defense. Caught heading home late after curfew (following a highly illegal dinner of roast pork from a pig missed by the Germans' inventory), an eclectic group of villagers makes up an excuse on the spot --- they were so engrossed by their literary discussion, they improvise, that they completely lost track of time. Of course, in order to validate their cover story, the "members" have to stage actual subsequent meetings, sometimes featuring creative desserts such as Potato Peel Pie (about the only dessert they could make with the limited supplies available to the near-starving islanders). To their surprise, especially since several of the group's members had never read a book before, the club soon sparks a genuine love of reading, as well as some intense literary debates.
Shortly after the war's end, one of the society's members, a pig farmer named Dawsey Adams, grows intrigued by the writings of 18th-century essayist Charles Lamb and, on a whim, decides to write to the former owner of his used volume, Juliet Ashton, to see if she can help him find more works by Lamb. Juliet, who had become a bestselling columnist and author during and after the war, soon begins corresponding with Dawsey and the other Society members. Friendship, compassion and a sense of discovering new stories about the war draws Juliet and the Guernsey islanders together. Juliet hopes to include their stories in a new series of newspaper columns, or maybe as part of a new book --- but even this astute cultural critic and social commentator does not anticipate the role these humble people will play in her own personal story.
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY is the result of a unique collaboration between Mary Ann Shaffer, a debut novelist who passed away earlier this year, and her niece, children's author Annie Barrows. (Barrows helped complete the book when Shaffer’s health became too poor.) The epistolary format of the novel is well-suited to this collaborative approach, as the letters between Juliet and her various correspondents serve as a sort of conversation that reveals character, history and the subtle secrets letter writers give away without even knowing it.
Although the novel is ultimately heartwarming (and what reader doesn't love a book about the redemptive power of books and reading?), it doesn't shy away from exploring some of the darker aspects of the war, including the cruelty of some German soldiers, the vulnerability of others and the horrors of the concentration camps. With a broad but well-developed cast of characters, a unique storytelling method and a firm grounding in a little-known front of World War II, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY will certainly spark lively discussion and moments of self-recognition at book clubs and literary societies everywhere.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society