Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Earlier this week I finished reading a delightful book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It's an epistolary book (written solely in letters), and I didn't feel, not even one time, that this kept me from getting in on the action or getting to know the characters as well as I wanted to. The book takes place first in London where author and journalist Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger living on Guernsey (an island in the English Channel) asking for assistance in finding a certain book in London. Juliet obliges and her correspondence with the reader leads her to write letters back and forth with several of his friends, all part of the organization in the title of the book. Later, Juliet, convinced she may be able to write a story about these charming people on this island, visits Guernsey to see them for herself. Guernsey had been occupied by the Germans during World War II and its English residents had been cut off from the rest of the world. The book takes place in the first few years after the war when everyone in Europe is getting back on their feet.  

This book fits in so well with my current World War II obsession, and since I'm doing a lot of reading on this topic at the moment, I was glad to have some perspective. Some parts of the book wouldn't have meant quite so much otherwise. For example, the grandson of one of the letter writers from the island has recently returned to Guernsey after spending the War years on a farm in Yorkshire to escape German occupation and potential danger. Not all the children in Guernsey were sent to the mainland. The grandparent reports, "It was a terrible thing to decide - send your kiddies away to live among strangers, or let them stay with you? Maybe the Germans wouldn't come, but if they did - how would they behave to us? But, come to that, what if they invaded England, too - how would the children manage without their own families beside them?" (p. 122).

I've heard members of the Greatest Generation talk about gathering around a household's only radio each evening to hear news of the War. Anne Frank and her fellow housemates knew what was going on during the War because they listened to forbidden stations on the office radio. This brings me to one of my favorite parts of the book when Juliet tells her publisher of the stories she's hearing about life during the War for Guernsey residents: "A reporter asked a Guernsey Islander, 'What was the most difficult experience you had during the Germans' rule?'....The Islander told him, 'You know they took away all of our wireless sets? If you were caught having a hidden radio, you'd get sent off to prison on the continent. Well, those of us who had secret radios, we heard about the Allies landing in Normandy. Trouble was, we weren't supposed to know it had happened! Hardest thing I ever did was walk around St. Peter Port on June 7, not grinning, not smiling, not doing anything to let those Germans know that I KNEW their end was coming. If they'd caught on, someone would be in for it - so we had to pretend. It was very hard to pretend not to know D-Day had happened'" (p. 135).

And, two more of my favorite lines include: "Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true" (p. 10) and "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason that sheer enjoyment" (pp. 11-12).

Sheer enjoyment is what I got out of this book. If Juliet were a real person, I'd want her to be my friend. My book club is discussing this book next week, and I can't wait to see what smartness we can come up with during discussion.

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