The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is an epistolary novel, a literary form with a long and at times popular history that extends to the current day. I think of Helene Haff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, and Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, as well as novels by Jane Austen (Lady Susan), Samuel Richardson (Pamela) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein).
A few years ago I tried to read a novel consisting of the e-mails of an online romance. While it was in vogue with contemporary epistolary trends, it quickly put an end to my epistolary novel reading days. That is, until the recently published The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I waxed and waned about reading book but in the end I succumbed and I very pleased I did. The novel is a charming account of the life of Guernsey islanders during World War 2 when the Germans occupied the island. It also affirms the power reading to sustain people enduring harsh times.
“We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.”
“I came to love our book meetings—they helped to make the Occupation bearable. Some of their books sounded fine, but I stayed true to Seneca. I came to feel that he was talking to me—in his funny, biting way—but talking to me alone.”
The farmer, Dawsey Adams, writes a letter to Juliet Ashton whose name he finds on a volume of Charles Lamb’s essays. Since there are no bookstores on Guernsey he wants to know if she might suggest dealer to write to in London. She replies by sending him a copy of Lamb’s letters and asks about the strange name of the literary society mentioned in his letter. In turn, this gives rise to a cascade of letters between Dawsey and Juliet that are soon followed by other correspondents on the island who wish to chime in about the their experience during the German occupation and how the literary society got them through the war.
Juliet is enchanted by these simple people and thinks their story may just be the very topic she will write about for her next book. She goes to the island, gets caught up in the lives of these people, learns about the occupation and ends up adopting the orphan child of a heroic woman, Elizabeth McKenna, who was sent away to a concentration camp for befriending a German soldier. The islanders wonder if she will ever return; sadly she never will be able to. But Juliet stays on the island, falls in love with Dawsey, whom she marries, and together they raise Elizabeth’s child.
“Sea air, sunshine, green fields, wildflowers, the ever-changing sky and ocean, and most of all, the people seem to have seduced her from City life.”
Unfortunately Mary Ann Shaffer did not live to see her book become such a widely read bestseller; her niece, Anne Barrows, completed it. However, before Ms Shaffer died, she penned the following wish for the book’s Acknowledgement:
“I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art—be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music—enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”