Last night I picked up the book my daughter has been urging me to read for several weeks, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows. At what I hope will turn out to be one of the most difficult points in life (there are worse things than approaching the one year mark of the early and unexpected death of your spouse, but I pray I’ll never experience them), I lay in a strange bed at a friend’s, literally unable to endure night in my own home. Consumed by emotions I’m completely at loss to identify or explain, I finally opened the pages of the book, and began to read.
I could tell as I read that Mary Ann Shaffer was a lover of books. (Annie Barrows is her niece and a childrens author. She stepped in at her aunt’s invitation to complete revisions when Mrs. Shaffer became to ill to finish them herself.) Mary Ann had worked as a bookseller, librarian and editor. A marvelous story teller, she also wrote prolifically, but never managed to produce something that satisfied her. Her standards, it seems, were high. The Guernsey Literary… Society, set in a post WWII Channel Island, began in 1967 (according to her obituary) or 1980 (her publisher), as a biography of the wife of polar explorer Robert Scott. Disappointed by a research dead end in Cambridge, she took a side trip to Guernsey. Socked in at the airport by dense fog, she did what any sensible person would do, and looked for something to read. Here a bit more mystery arises. Was there, as her obituary relates, a library at the airfield, or was it simply a bookstore, as her publisher claims? I suppose it doesn’t matter, but I really hope it was a library. In the literary society’s Guernsey a branch library would have been installed to benefit all who passed through. Mrs. Maugery would have insisted. Whatever the source of Jersey Under the Jack Boot, it and other books on the Nazi Invasion of the Channel Islands fascinated her. That interest eventually allowed her to fulfill her lifelong ambition to “Write a book that someone would like enough to publish.” When her book club convinced her to do just that she started to write seriously. She was about 70 at the time.
To some reviewers Dawsey Adams and rest of the accidental literary society seem far-fetched, too quirky to be true. I didn’t find them strange, maybe because I grew up in a rather remote, rural area myself. Ingenuity, mutual reliance and eccentricity are almost required in a small isolated society. Shared hardships seem to makes those qualities stronger. My grandmother’s family made soup out of straw during the great famine that eventually drove them from the Ukraine to NE Colorado. In similar circumstances Potato Peel Pie sounds pretty clever to me. Had she known of it, Great Grandma Bauder might have asked for the recipe.
The deprivations people suffer in the book were very real in England and Europe during WWII. The tiny island in the English Channel actually was occupied, and their children were evacuated before the invasion, some never to be reunited with their families. One book reviewer mockingly asked if no one on Guernsey at that time ever read a trashy novel. I don’t imagine they did. Books would have been burned for fuel soon after the wood supply ran out. Guernsey’s bookseller, we are told, boarded up his shop because people are buying up his treasures to use as fuel. Only a book valued highly by its owner might have been saved, and only by someone as strong minded as Amelia Maugery, the supplier of the society's books. Before she wrote her novel, Mrs. Shaffer spent years researching the Nazi occupation of the Channels and corresponding with many of its survivors. Whether created by the author’s imagination or drawn from documented facts, Guernsey and it’s people are real to me. Maybe because of what they lived through the literary society member’s letters don’t just portray facts, but truths as well. “’When my son, Ian, died at El Alamein…’” Amelia Maugery writes, “‘visitors offering their condolences, thinking to comfort me, said "Life goes on." What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on.’”
It’s true that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is endearing, charming, smart and joyful, as critics have said. If that’s all it were it would be enough. We could use more well written books like that to lift our spirits and make us smile, couldn’t we? It was more than that for me last night, though. It didn’t just lift my spirits, it comforted me, gave me some confidence and a bit of hope. My daughter said the she felt that, too, when she read it. I don’t want to sound mystical, or somehow imply that The Guernsey Literary… Society is a profound work. It isn’t and I’m glad. But when a book can tell its story honestly, with real characters and situations that feel true, it gives us more than a great read. It gives a piece of life. Why that means so much to me at this moment, I honestly don’t know. But it does.
Read, and sleep, well, Friend