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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Book Review

     The title of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society made me fear that the novel would be too cutesy, but authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows (aunt and niece) present a believable ensemble of characters and an engrossing story, all told in letters. Their main character, a writer called Juliet Ashton, begins to discover in 1946 how the Nazi occupation of the British island of Guernsey affected its residents. As they become her friends, they and their stories have a life-changing effect on her.
      A Guernsey man has found Juliet’s name in a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. He writes to her to ask how to get more books by Lamb. Wares of the one bookstore on the island have all been bought by the Society or burned. Juliet decides to help, and as letters fly back and forth, she learns that the Society sprang from a spontaneous lie when some islanders were caught violating curfew. When the German commander praised the idea and asked to attend, the friends decided they had better really start reading books and discussing them.
      Soldiers came only a few times, but the meetings became the center of life for the islanders, partly because of the effect of literature on people who had read little more than pig-breeding magazines, and because of their friendships and loyalties. All had to deal with dwindling supplies of flour and cooking oil and soap, with the sight of starving slave laborers, and with those who would betray neighbors to gain favor with the Germans. One of the members is caught feeding a teenage slave who collapsed in a garden, too weak even to dig up a potato. She is arrested and never seen again, leaving behind a baby girl whose father is a German officer. How the Society cares for the child is a major part of the story.
     The grimness is there, but so are courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice and love. Grace notes of humor and a charming romance temper the dark history and leave the reader with hope. The romantic, the book lover and the history buff will all appreciate this book.

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