It may seem unusual to start a book review at the end, but bear with me. I hope my reasons will become clear.
In the Afterword, Annie Barrows, invites us to become members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by sharing our delight in books, and this book in particular. By passing on books we have read, recommending them to our friends and acquaintances, we become part of the society’s ongoing story.
My Mother and I became part of that story when she gave me her recently acquired, and already treasured, copy to read. Now my obligation extends to sharing this book with you.
What is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?
That is the question that sparked a series of letters between Juliet Ashton and Dawsey Adams, a founding member of the society. Juliet is a writer, living in London and struggling to come up with a new idea for a book at the end of the Second World War. She receives a chance letter from Dawsey when he comes across a book that she once owned.
“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”
(Juilet to Dawsey, p 9)
Dawsey’s early references to the society’s inception involving a roast pig, and the unusual name of the society, are sufficient to arouse Juliet’s curiosity. A flurry of letters lead Juliet to many more questions, and the book rapidly unfolds to reveal a story of Guernsey’s occupation by the Germans during the Second World War.
Events take place in 1946 over a short period of 8 months. The main characters are introduced and developed through their correspondence with Juliet, and Juliet’s own story is woven through the letters she writes to her closest friends, telling the tales of her discoveries and experiences. Juliet ultimately finds her own, unique place in the society, and amongst its members.
Unusually the book has 2 authors. Mary Ann Shaffer, of West Virigina, flew to Guernsey on a whim during a trip to London in the 1980’s. Her brief glimpse of the Island’s history and beauty fascinated her, and evolved in to this book many years later. Sadly, she fell ill before she was able to complete it, and the reins passed to her niece. Annie Barrows found support in memories of happy years listening to her Aunt capture listeners with her anecdotes, as she tied the loose ends of the book together.
The light, easy to read quality of the text is a testament to the authors’ storytelling ability. Despite the sometimes harrowing and upsetting tales of wartime Guernsey and the plight of its residents, the emerging theme in this book is one of survivorship. A nation coming to terms with what happened and finding a way to carry on living. Most, but not all, are eager for their story to be shared.
As a reader, the book captures you from the very beginning. Juliet’s questions and curiosity become your own and carry you through the story. It’s impossible to put this book down, and when you do, it draws you back for more.
For me the real intrigue is the information revealed about the War. The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be seized by the Nazis, yet the stories did not feature in school history lessons, at least as I remember them. Guernsey was occupied between 1940 and 1945, with little or no resistance from the British Army, who had to focus their efforts on protecting the mainland.
Communication lines were severed and Guernsey’s residents were unable to access news or information about the progress of the war, nor were they able to communicate freely with the outside world. Towards the end of the war, food was scarce and the Island’s resources were exhausted.
“All the flour for bread had run out by the beginning of December 1944. Them German Soldiers was as hungry as we was – with bloated bellies and no body warmth from food.”
(Micah Daniels to Juliet, p 127)
Information about the experiences of Channel Island residents took a long time to be properly understood. It was believed that the islanders had collaborated too easily with the occupation. As recently as 2010 documents were discovered, giving graphic accounts of the penalties for resistance, which saw many civilians being sent to German prison camps. Fortunately, claims of collaboration could be laid to rest.
It is all the more poignant to discover this book in 2015, which marks 70 years since the Channel Islands were liberated at the end of the War. Liberation Day is celebrated on 9 May 2015 and commemorative events are taking place on Guernsey between 3 April and 11 May as part of the Channel Islands Heritage Festival.
Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has heightened my curiosity about Guernsey. So much so that I’ve found myself planning a trip.
Nowadays Guernsey is a place to experience the great outdoors, go for long walks, cycle rides, and breathe in the fresh island air.
“I’m going to run through the wild-flower meadow outside my door and up to the cliff as fast as I can. Then I’m going to lie down and look at the sky, which is shimmering like a pearl this afternoon, and breathe in the warm scent of grass…”
(Juliet to Sophie, p 143)
But, after reading this book, I know that I will also be visiting the German Occupation Museum, to learn as much as I can about this fascinating island, and its important place in history.
And so, I task you to pick up the challenge. Read this book, share your experience, and take your own place in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
A handful of resources to continue your reading about the occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War:
The Guardian – Guernsey files reveal how islanders defied Nazi occupation
BBC History – German Occupation of the Channel Islands
Visit Guernsey – History of Guernsey
Wikipedia – Occupation of the Channel Islands
Details of the Channel Islands Heritage Festival:
Where to buy the book: