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July 31, 2008

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

Writes Juliet Ashton in a letter to Dawsy Adams, “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” But it might be, homing instinct or no homing instinct. That this delightful book was brought to me, full of all the things I like the best– an epistolary novel, begun on the basis of a used book’s passage from one reader to another, full of wonderful literary references, even a bookish mystery of sorts, plus a reference to the joys of peering in windows, and a teapot that’s used as a weapon.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a novel comprising a selection of correspondence, primarily to and from Juliet Ashton. Ashton, living in 1946 London with its war wounds still so fresh, is a writer seeking the subject of her next book– she’s previously published a commercially unsuccessful biography of Anne Bronte, and a very popular collection of humorous columns she’d written during the war. Her interest is sparked by a letter she receives from Dawsy Adams, a pig farmer from Guernsey in Britain’s Channel Islands, who has somehow acquired a book that was once hers, Juliet’s name and address inscribed on the inside cover.

Dawsy has written seeking other books, which are proving hard to find where he is– Guernsey still a long way from recovering from 5 years of German occupation. Books, Dawsy explains, have become very important to him, and his friends, far more than it was ever figured they would be during that evening they devised their Literary Society as a ruse to hide a pig from the Nazis.

Letters between Juliet and Dawsy, Juliet and her publisher, and also from the other members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, come together to form a marvelously engaging narrative, with characters so real their letters shout off the page. Their stories a testament to the power of literature upon all different kinds of people, as solace during hardship, to bring friends together. Portraying also the horrors of life during occupation, Juliet reflecting that all through the war she hadn’t thought much about the Channel Islands, and I don’t imagine many of us since have thought about it more. A fascinating, if awful, piece of history, and Mary Ann Shaffer’s enthusiasm for this subject is evident in her work. Unnatural exposition the risk of any epistolary novel, and where it happens here (which is rarely) is with these stories, these historical details, but we forgive them because they hold such interest.

The novel’s prose lives up to all the great works it references, which is certainly something. Offering such a fabulous critique: Juliet writes, “P.S. I am reading the correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? ‘My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation and yours is to write charming little notes.’ I hope Jane spit on her.”

One Society member writes of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, edited by Yeats who excluded WW1 poems due to his “distaste” for themes of “passive suffering”: “Passive Suffering? Passive Suffering! …What ailed the man? Lieutenant Owen, he wrote a line, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” What’s passive about that, I’d like to know? That’s exactly how they do die. I saw it with my own eyes, and I say to hell with Mr. Yeats.”

I would urge this novel upon you, with all its wonderfully funny writing, shocking in places, and in other turns sad. Hardly shying away from the brutal realities of this time period, absolutely and bravely unflinching, but also masterful at capturing the nuances of ordinary life. A certain erudition evident, but always underlined by a joy– in books, in reading, in human relationships, and the connections between all three.

(Read DGR’s Review.)

One thought on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer”

  1. Katherine says:

    I recently read this book, too, and loved it!

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