The story and the characters in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are every bit as intriguing as the book\’s unusual and quirky-sounding title.
Told entirely in the form of letters to and from its characters, the story begins in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II as Europe is slowly emerging from the horrors of that war. In London, writer Juliet Ashton is trying to come up with a subject for her next book when she receives a letter complimenting her on her writing from a stranger, Dawsey Adams. Dawsey is a native of the Island of Guernsey, one of the English Channel Islands near the French coastline. Guernsey was under Nazis occupation.
Dawsey\’s letter sets off an exchange of letters between the two. Eventually other residents of the small island join the exchange, describing the effects of the occupation on their lives. Through the residents\’ letters Julia is introduced to the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society which was initially created as an alibi when the Nazis caught the islanders breaking curfew. The Societyquickly becomes real, banding them together and making them friends as well as survivors.
Some of the residents were not readers, but they came together for companionship and entertain each other with discussions about books. And they share their letters from Julia, who soon becomes so intrigued with her new friends that she takes up temporary residence on Guernsey so that she can meet them face to face and write a book about their experiences.
Julia learns their very real and painful stories about the effect the Nazi occupation has had on their home and their lives. Their letters to her are colorful, sad and very descriptive. We also get to know the Islanders as individuals—courageous, frightened, sometimes funny but always determined to survive. Julia\’s letters to them are thoughtful and wonderfully funny.
In the years the Nazis occupied Guernsey, they tightly controlled every aspect of islanders\’ lives. They were cruel conquers, rationing their food and the fuel they needed for heat and cooking, robbing their vegetable gardens and forcing the islanders to live in constant fear.
Islanders shared rations and helped each other in every possible way with medical aid and whatever else they needed to survive—including their sense of humor. Together they
lived through the ever-present cold, dampness, relentless hunger and very real fear of the Nazis. And a gentle love story quietly develops.
With little notice, Guernsey\’s children were rounded up and shipped to England. Having their children sent to another country, frightened and alone, to unknown caregivers and for an indefinite length of time was a terrible heartbreak for the Islander, who could only hope that at least their children would be safer.
The book gives us an all too realistic picture of the Nazi occupation of Guernsey. But we learn even more about courage, strong friendships and the importance of both. And the story is told with warmth and humor. The letter-writing format is a clever, surprisingly effective and believable way to get to know the courageous, creative, sometimes quirky residents of Guernsey and to see how they struggled to survive and were effected by the Nazi occupation of their island. —Gail Stilwill
NOTE: The original author, Mary Ann Shaffer, died before she was able to complete the book, after spending years researching material. Her niece, Annie Barrows, was able to pick up where Shaffer left off and compete the book. It was well worth the efforts of both writers.