Moon Lake Library Book Club Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The first title selected by the Moon Lake Community Library’s book club for its inaugural meeting was, very fittingly, about a book club. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a novel about the people of Guernsey during World War II. The island, not far from the coast of Normandy, was the only British territory occupied by the Germans during the war, and both the citizens of Guernsey and the German soldiers would suffer during the five-year occupation, as food became increasingly scarce.
Despite its setting in the aftermath of the war and its often dark subject matter, the book’s tone is warm and sometimes humorous. The club itself was the accidental creation of Elizabeth McKenna, who makes up an imaginary book club as an excuse when she and her friends are stopped by German soldiers after their gathering for an illicit roast pig dinner. Forced to then create a book club, they begin a series of meetings where various islanders, some of them readers and others not so much, share books that speak to them. Through their meetings they develop an appreciation for reading and, just as importantly, create a tight knit community of friends whose ties will strengthen them in times of hardship and tragedy.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is what is known as an epistolary novel, one told in a series of letters—in this case letters between the islanders and London author Juliet Ashton, who hopes that their experiences might provide the basis for her next book. Through Juliet’s correspondence with the book club members, she is soon drawn into their lives and decides to visit the island to meet the characters whose letters have so intrigued her: Eben whose orphaned grandson Eli has returned home to Guernsey after a five-year-long evacuation during the war; earthy and free spirited Isola; the quiet pig farmer Dawsey, who first contacted her when one of her books ended up in his possession; Amelia, hostess of the dinner that first gave rise to the club.
The person Juliet most wants to meet is Elizabeth McKenna, whose spirit and bravery has been repeatedly mentioned in letters from the islanders. She arrives on Guernsey to find that Elizabeth is missing, and her young daughter Kit is being collectively raised by the literary society. The war may be over, but it casts a long shadow as survivors on Guernsey are still awaiting news of Elizabeth’s fate, hoping that she will soon return to the island.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an engaging read with plenty to draw in readers looking for historical fiction, family drama, and just enough romance. The setting on Guernsey offers a World War II story that is not well known, at least not by American readers.
The publication of the book was itself bittersweet. Mary Shaffer had just sold the manuscript to this, her first novel, when she became ill and was unable to complete the required revisions. Her niece Annie Barrows, author of the popular children’s series Ivy and Bean, as well as other books, took over the manuscript, and the novel was eventually published after Shaffer’s death.
The Moon Lake Community Library has a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society available for check out. The book club’s next meeting is Saturday, November 3, at 10:30, when we will discuss Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, a novel about the long-term relationship between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
-- by Anne McLeod