The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book that has spawned an industry, to look at the website set up by Random House –book clubs, contests and more. Talk about marketing!
The copy I finally read at the end of the summer was the 27th hardcover printing – the website tells us it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for many many weeks and judging by the rate the book is selling everywhere, including Parry Sound, that is likely to continue.
I attempted to read this book when it was first published just over a year ago – I put it down after a few pages because it did not immediately engage my attention. But, with so many of my customers telling me how much they enjoyed it, I thought I would give it another try. Well, being more determined to be fair and give it a good 50 pages, I found it entertaining at the beginning and then I did want to read to the end to find out what happened.
The premise is that Juliet Ashton, a journalist who has had a collection of wartime humour pieces published into a successful book, is on a book tour. Lots of cute anecdotes about this, and flattering depictions of booksellers – she wins us over with statements “ I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers – booksellers really are a special breed…. It has to be the love of readers and reading that makes them do it – along with first dibs on new books”. Juliet and her friend Sophie had worked in a bookshop when they were younger, and she is correct in that “Real dyed-in-the-wool booksellers - like Sophie and me - can’t lie. Our faces are a dead give away. A lifted brow or a curled lip reveals that it is a poor excuse for a book, and the clever customers asks for a recommendation instead, whereupon we frog-march them over to a particular volume and command them to read it. If they read it and despise it, they’ll never come back. Bit, if they like it, they’re customers for life.” Well, that does express my own feelings about bookselling – so, for a bookseller, what’s not to like about this character and this book?
What I did like was the descriptions of life in the Channel Islands during World War II. Like Juliet, I knew that the German army had occupied the islands, but that was all I knew. I knew nothing of the privations and rather desperate isolation the people on those islands lived with for five long years. The islands of Guernsey, Jersey, and Alderney, Herm and Sark, were occupied from 30 June 1940 until 9 May 1945. Situated between England and France – they can actually be seen from the fortifications at St. Malo in France - the islands were strategically important for the German military. There were several prisoner of war camps to provide labour for the German forces. The occupying forces took over property, enforced curfews, and forbid the ownership of radios and telephones. There were no newspapers or mail delivery. Many children and some women were evacuated to England just prior to the invasion – no one knew about the lives of their loved ones, on or off the islands during the occupation.
All of this Juliet Ashton discovers in the months after receiving a letter from Mr. Dawsey Adams, of Guernsey, who has come to own a book by Charles Lamb that Juliet once owned. This book has become a treasure to Dawsey, and the story of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society begins. We are introduced to a cast of characters we come to feel genuine affection for, as does Juliet when she meets them after some months of correspondence. And it is this correspondence that makes the text of the novel. It is all letters, to and from Juliet and her friends. I think I would call this book an “entertainment”, a sort of sweet to be eaten with a gin and tonic on a summer day. I understand the appeal for readers, and it is informative, what I liked most about it was discovering this small part of the history of the Channel Islands.
I, personally, would have preferred a more fully developed novel about this time and place. But, this book as it is, is the result of circumstances. Mary Ann Shaffer, an American, who had worked as an editor, bookseller, and librarian, was the aspiring author of this novel. Her dream was to “write a book that someone would like enough to publish." To this end, she has been researching and writing about the German occupation of the Channel Islands since a visit to England in 1976 which included a trip to Guernsey – where she discovered the facts of the German Occupation during World War II. When she became too ill to continue, her niece Annie Barrows, author of the popular children’s series Ivy and Bean took over the project. Mary Ann Shaffer died in February 2008 knowing that her novel was to be published – but did not live to see the world wide phenomenon it has turned out to be.
All of this makes for a beautiful marketing opportunity on the one hand, and a lovely tribute on the other. Even if I found the book too much like something “manufactured” there is no doubt that the story is intriguing and, if perhaps sometimes too fey, I understand the appeal. I will probably not be the only read whose appetite for more information on the German occupation of the Channel Islands has been whetted.