Someone in my writing group loaned me a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows.
The Dial Press published it in 2008, and it was a New York Times #1 bestseller. Not wanting to hang onto a borrowed book for too long, I decided I should read it right away, and boy I’m glad I did. I have not been so delighted in a book in a very long time.
The book is set in England shortly after WWII, and it is about a writer named Juliet Ashton who becomes friends with a group of people on Guernsey Island. Guernsey Island is one of the Channel Islands, and the Germans occupied it for five years during the war.
Through correspondence, Juliet learns how difficult life was during the occupation for these people. The reader can also gleam details about the devastating affects the war had on London. I love getting a good history lesson through fiction, and I could tell the authors did extensive research. However, I was impressed with the authors’ abilities to write about such heartbreaking events while not making the book dark or sad. In fact, the book is very uplifting.
The whole book is written through letters. By reading Juliet’s and her friend’s letters, the authors weave a vivid tale about a group of people who I wish I could be friends with in real life. If there is ever a book that illustrates how good fiction starts with good characters, this is it. The book is mostly about people, love and the true meaning of family.
Apparently at the beginning of the German Occupation, the Germans wanted the British to believe that they were exemplar captors. They encouraged the people on Guernsey Island to create and become involved in cultural activities. So, when a group of people was caught on the streets after curfew, one of them made up the story of how they were returning from the Guernsey Literary Society. The guards allowed them to go home, but they were told the Society would be checked up on.
Quickly, the group sprung together and passed books around. Many in the group had never read a book before. What started as a ruse, however, became the thing that made this group of people become close friends, and the books helped them weather the occupation, which became brutal and devastating for many people.
Then there is Juliet’s story and how she finds her true home on Guernsey Island. I’m not going to tell you anymore.
My favorite part of the book, however, was the afterword. In it, I learned that the author, Mary Ann Shaffer, was an avid storyteller, and though she came from a family full of storytellers, she was the most beloved of them all. After many starts and stops, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was the first story she completed on paper and subsequently got published.
It took years of work to research and write. First her family helped her with it and then her writing group. It went through several drafts with an agent and then an editor. Unfortunately, her health was failing when her publisher asked for some extensive, last revisions to the book, so Mary Ann asked her niece and author Anne Barrows to finish it for her.
Anne did finish the book for her aunt, and though Mary Ann Shaffer died before it was published, she knew it was going to be printed in English and translated to many other languages as well. As someone who has always wanted to publish a book myself, it does my heart good to know that this wonderful storyteller’s dream came true, even if it was so late in life.
Shelli Bond Pabis is a Winder resident and a columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.