A Journalist's Archive

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

Letters – They don’t write them like they used to. Reading this novel is equivalent to reading someone else’s mail. Not today’s twitters or e-mails, but correspondence from an age long gone when communication was an art form created with fountain pens, cursive penmanship, and vivid accounts of life events. Fitting “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” into a genre isn’t easy. It can best be described as a historic novel with a predictable romance thrown in. No matter how you classify it, it’s an enjoyable story ingeniously told through an exchange of letters.

Author Mary Ann Shaffer stumbled onto Guernsey in 1980 while searching for a new book topic after a “failed biography” about Kathleen Scott, wife of polar explorer Robert Scott. Shaffer spent little time on the island, but she left with “an abiding interest in Guernsey’s wartime experiences.” Years later, Shaffer skillfully crafted the Literary Society, filling it with an array of colorful characters. Although fictional, Shaffer’s multi-person account of life during five years of German occupation certainly sparked my interest in the history of the Channel Islands.

A quick look at the map clearly shows the islands are much closer to France than England. However William the Conqueror owned the territory, so it became part of England after his invasion in 1066.

Juliet Ashton, Shaffer’s protagonist, is a journalist living in post-war London. She knows nothing about the hardships islanders endured during the war. Historically, that’s the way it was. Churchill sent ships to evacuate Channel Island children before the Germans invaded. But England didn’t have the military resources to defend the islands, so German invaders met little resistance when they landed on Guernsey. And once the Blitz started, Londoners were only focused on their own survival.

Ashton wrote a light-hearted column during the war, but now feels humor is no longer her forte. Like her creator, she too is searching for a unique, “meaningful” subject for her next book. The first letter in the novel is written by Ashton and postmarked January 8, 1946. It’s addressed to publisher/friend, Sidney Stark. After months of research on a book entitled “English Foibles,” Ashton tells Stark, “I no longer want to write this book…” Obviously, this is a not a statement a publisher ever wants to hear. But Stark replies it’s better to discover this during the research phase rather than after six months of writing. He reassures Ashton that some subject will grab her attention soon.

Fate comes to her rescue when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a man she never met. Adams lives on Guernsey and wrote to Ashton after finding her address scribbled in the “Selected Essays of Elia,” by Charles Lamb. He wants Ashton to send him the names and addresses of a few bookstores in London. While that would seem like an odd request today, it fits perfectly into the time period. Even though the Germans are long gone, there are no bookstores in Guernsey. Adams read Lamb’s book throughout the occupation because it made him laugh. “Especially the part about the roast pig,” he says. Then, without any further explanation, he adds “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” started after an importune “roast pig” feast hosted by Mrs. Maugery one evening during the war.

Ashton finds it astonishing that Adams’ letter reached her because it was addressed to her Chelsea flat which was bombed the year before. She complies with his request, but in return she wants to know the connection between a roast pig dinner and a literary society. Over the next several months, Adams fills in the details. Immediately after landing on Guernsey, the Germans confiscated the majority of domestic animals for their own use. The animals they did allow farmers to keep were recorded, so the military could “procure them” when ready to eat. If an animal died the owner had to contact the German authorities immediately, so their records could be updated. Islanders were expected to survive on turnips and potatoes, and hiding food or animals earned the offender a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. But hunger is a powerful force. Mrs. Maugery managed to hide a piglet long enough to fatten it up, she then invited her neighbors to an illegal feast.

They gorged themselves on pork and wine, talking and singing far into the evening. While feasting they forgot about the curfew. Anyone out after dark could be shot or deported. Mrs. Maugery offers to let them stay the night, but the guests decide if they are quiet they can make it home undetected. Unfortunately, they quickly come face to face with six German patrol officers, with lugers drawn. When the officers demand to know why they are out after dark, Elizabeth McKenna, a quick-thinking young woman, steps forward to beg the soldiers forgiveness. We were attending a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society, and the discussion of “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” was so delightful that “we lost all track of time,” she lies. The group is released, but they are ordered to report to the Commandant the next morning.

Sticking to their story the next morning, the Commandant orders them to pay a small fine, but not before getting permission from McKenna to attend the society’s next meeting. In haste, McKenna gathers books to fill Mrs. Maugery’s bookshelves, and the “next” literary society meeting is scheduled. While the society started as a ruse, reading and discussing books, authors, and writing styles provided a small escape from war. One crotchety resident, Will Thisbee, insisted “he wasn’t going to any meetings unless there were eats!” Because there was no sugar, butter, or flour, he concocted a “potato peel pie.” Thus the dessert became part of the club’s name. Turn to page 51 to find the pie’s ingredients.

 I first thought “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” would be a “fluffy” book. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an accurate portrayal of the islanders’ experiences under German occupation. Other Guernsey residents wrote about the pain of being separated from their children. Eben Ramsey recalls how parents worried about the children evacuated to England. His grandson, Eli, was 7 years old when he left and 12 when he returned. Six months after Eli boarded ship, the Red Cross managed to deliver a postcard stating that he had arrived safely. But no other correspondence was possible for the next five years.  

Some letters also describe the ethical dilemmas faced during the war. For example: were the English girls who danced with German soldiers traitors? What about the English woman who fell in love with a German doctor? And how long can you hate your oppressor when both of you are facing starvation?

Shortly after finishing the rough draft of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” Shaffer became too ill to complete the editorial changes necessary for publication. Thankfully, her niece, Annie Barrows, stepped in and finished the project. As if by osmosis, or just plain great writing, the story urges readers to learn more about the Channel Islands. The novel is entertaining, educational, and well worth the read.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2009 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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