April 8, 2010
First, about the authors: written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the idea for this book came about when Mary Ann was visiting London in 1976. She somehow became interested in Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands between England and France) and flew to the Island where she was stranded due to fog. While reading her way through everything offered at the Guernsey Airport bookstore, she became fascinated with the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II and the idea for this book was spawned. She did not actually write the book until many years later and, sadly, her health was such that she was unable to finish. She asked her niece, Annie Barrows, to do the job for her and the book was published in 2008, the same year that Mary Ann passed away. Annie has published several other books.
The book is composed entirely of letters written to and from residents of Guernsey. (Word of the day: Epistolary.) The main character, Juliet Ashton, is an author who wrote a weekly column under a pen name, "Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War." She is ready to move on and write something under her own name, but is having trouble coming up with a subject that interests her. Then she is asked to write an article for the Times about the practical, moral and philosophical value of reading.
In the meantime, she has received a letter dated January 12, 1946, from Dawsey Adams, a farmer on Guernsey who enjoys reading. In this first letter, he mentions that "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers ..." And so it begins. Juliet is taken with the stories of life on the Island during the Occupation and begins receiving letters from its residents with the intent of using them to write her article.
Along the way, she travels to Guernsey, makes many friends, encounters heroes, enemies, busy bodies and love in many forms. One of the delightfully engaging characters is Isola Pribby, kind of an Island wackadoodle who sells preserves, vegetables and elixirs made to restore manly ardor. One of my favorite passages in the book is in a letter written by Isola to Sidney Stark, Juliet's publisher. Isola has received a book from Sidney on the Science of Phrenology, studying the bumps on people's heads to see what's right and/or wrong with them ...
"It's a real lightning bolt, this Science of Phrenology. I've found out more in the last three days than I knew in my whole life before. Mrs. Guilbert has always been a nasty one, but now I know that she can't help it -- she's got a big pit in her Benevolence spot. She fell in the quarry when she was a girl, and my guess is she cracked her Benevolence and was never the same again."
This book drew me in with the horrors of the Occupation, the things people did to survive and the amazing love and friendship that grew from it. At one point in the story, I was so distraught that I had to put the book down and leave it for a while. I felt as though I was mourning the death of someone I knew.
A successful Book Club selection and a great read!