Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Authors: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dial Press, 2008
278 pages

This is not a title that would typically appeal to me, yet it called to me like a siren. It was highly recommended at all three of the major online bookstores whose web sites I visit regularly, and it has high user ratings. So, in the interest of pop culture, I bought and read it. I was so not disappointed.

This epistolary novel is presented as a series of letters to and from Juliet Ashton, a writer looking for her next book topic in post-World War II England. Out of the blue she receives a letter from a farmer in Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands between England and France) who has somehow come across a book Juliet once owned. In his letter he mentions his membership in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet's curiosity is arouses, and they begin a correspondence which eventually leads Juliet to visit the island.

Not many people realize that a part of Britain flew under the Nazi flag during the War, but it's true. The Germans occupied Guernsey for nearly five years. From here, bombers took off to conduct raids over London (Juliet remembers the bombing raids well. In fact, her flat was destroyed by a bomb.) The people of the island had virtually no communication with the outside world during this time. They were told that London had been bombed to ashes, and there was a great deal of additional sadness brought about by the fact that many islanders had sent their children to England as a preventive measure in advance of the Germans' arrival, and were unable to contact them. For five years, they had no idea if they were dead or alive (the children or the parents).

The German Organisation Todt used slave labor to construct fortifications along the islands. The laborers - mostly from Eastern Europe - worked under horrible conditions and were given very little if any food, so they often strayed away from the camps in search of something, anything to eat. If locals aided them, they were arrested and sent away to concentration camps on the continent.

So along with a good story, you also get a history lesson in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The book is absolutely alive with interesting characters, from Isola, the local "witch" who sees everything as black or white, to Booker, the former servant who by fate, became a master. Everyone in the book has a story. But perhaps the most interesting stories are those of the people who are not there to tell them: fiesty Elizabeth, mother of young Kit; and Christian, the German officer who was respected by the locals because he did not treat them like enemies. Their stories are told secondhand by the people who knew them.

You'll laugh a lot while reading this book. But keep the tissues nearby, because there will be several opportunities for tears. Save a tissue for the author (Shaffer) who became ill not long after she got the publishing contract and unfortunately did not live to see the book's publication and success. Sad.

Rating: 4.5 stars. Giving it a little extra for originality - and because I learned something new about WWII history.