Today’s book is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann  Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

I had heard about this book quite a few times, so after end-of-the-semester grading was finished I curled up with it and indulged.  The book is written in a unique format– through letters between the main character, a writer named Juliet, and her friends. It is set just after World War II, Juliet lives in London and is searching for a new book to write. She is a single, unmarried women in her thirties, without any family.

At first the book seems confusing, because you have to keep track of the letters, and puzzle out the relationships between the characters. There is Juliet’s editor, the editor’s sister (and her best friend) and then an interesting cast of characters arrives on the scene: That would be the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. This occurs by happenstance– a pig farmer named Dawsey buys a book of Juliet’s from a used bookseller, and he contacts her about the book. Dawsey happens to live on the Isle of Guernsey, which is an island in the English Channel, between France and England (it is closer to France than England) and after Juliet makes contact with Dawsey, a remarkable story flows forth.

Guernsey, as many may or may not have known, was the only English territory to be occupied during WWII. The islanders lived not only under German occupation, but also horrible deprivation and completely cut off from the rest of the world (as the Germans confiscated their radios, did not let them have access to newspapers, etc).  This deprivation included turning over the majority of the island livestock over to feed the German army (thus leaving the people to starve.) The literary society came about because of a lie that a group of islanders told the Germans because they were trying to cover up an “illegal pig” (a hog kept by an island woman who had been slaughtered and enjoyed by her neighbors.)  It turned into an actual literary society after the lie was told (so to not blow their cover) and it is this group of islanders who begin to get in touch with Juliet about their story.

What comes out is the story of strong friendships, humanity and joy that is laced with deep darkness, heartbreak and the scars of war. The islanders who Juliet comes to know and love, survived harrowing times, and depended upon each other to do so. Their circle revolves around an islander named Elizabeth, who loved greatly, and sacrificed much, ending up in a German concentration camp for defying authorities, and who left behind a daughter for her neighbors to raise.

Juliet finds herself, well, trying to find herself, and in the process becomes far more deeply enmeshed in the lives of the islanders than anyone could have imagined. The tone of the book is remarkable. Somehow the two authors managed to develop different voices for each of the characters in ways that were not contrived or precious.  The book alternates between a light, playful tone, and a more  somber understanding and it is this alternating between darkness and light that can sometimes send a punch to the gut to the reader before you realize it. In many ways, the characters show the versatility of humanity– even during the darkest of times, people hang on, and even find joy. The book also is really a meditation on friendship and community. So many of the characters lost their families during war in ways that were profoundly painful, but their friends, their community, their family of choice, is what kept them going despite it all.

I really enjoyed this book.  Beware, in the first few pages it seems all light and frothy, but it will have you gasping in horror as you get into it, and into the lives of the islanders who survived hell on earth. But the book shows that the human spirit somehow always find a way to keep going, a way to heal, and a way to love.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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