Once upon a time, in a book club far, far away some friends got together and read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I must confess that I instigated the request for the book. I had read it a while before, and was positive they would also like it. I love to read stories regarding World War II, and with a name like that, is HAS to be good, right?? Well, it is.
Guernsey begins about a year after the end of World War II. The main character, Juliet Ashton, spent most of the war years writing uplifting newspaper articles to help her fellow countrymen keep stiff upper lips and a smiles on their faces. Now that it’s all over, her works have been made into a book, and she has set about on a tour of bookstores and guest appearances at clubs, to promote the book. She is excited for the book’s success, but it is exhausting, sometimes thankless work. She longs to be able to put the war and her literary character, Izzy Bickerstaff, behind her and write something that has nothing to do with the war. Enter a letter from a pig farmer on the Isle of Guernsey, which is in the English Channel between England and France. He has somehow acquired a copy of a book by Charles Lamb that used to belong to Juliet, and he is hoping she will be able to put him in touch with more books by this same author. Her question to him was, “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey?” and with that, began an unusual pen pal relationship.
With every note and letter from Dawsey Adams (the man on Guernsey), Juliet becomes more interested in his life and life on the island, especially after she learns they endured German occupation for five years. How did they exist? What did they do for fun? How did they steer clear of the Germans? Life in London at the same time pretty much occupied all of Juliet’s thinking, leaving little time for any thought of an island in the Channel. She learns how Dawsey and his friends were invited to a secret pig roast, stayed out too late, and, in order to avoid arrest, made up their “literary society.” They had become so engrossed in their book discussions (so they said) that they completely lost track of the time. That bit of seat-of-the-pants thinking was the brainchild of Elizabeth McKenna, who showed no fear, could think on a dime, and walked them all away from the soldiers as if it were a walk in the park. The next day is a frenzy of rounding up the other supper participants and as many books as they can lay hands on in order to look like a real book club. Several join under protest, but as time wears on, and the war seems never to end, it becomes a lifeline for them all.
As time and letter-writing progresses Juliet becomes acquainted with the members of the GLPPPS. She wants to write an article in The Times focusing on their wartime experiences. Juliet wants to intimately learn of each member, and how they fit into the group. There are several characters who are pioneers of the group; all from as various backgrounds as you can imagine. Each of these members, and a few others that are heard from later in the book, have one main, binding character, and that is Elizabeth. She is the Guernsey equivalent to Juliet. It seems there is nothing she can’t do, and none of it is ever done for her own glory or personal gain. In the midst of such evil going on around them all, Elizabeth is the epitome of grace under fire; and it is that loving, giving heart that gets her into trouble.
By the time Juliet meets up with the islanders, there have been some significant changes in the dynamics of the members; so now, on top of writing more for her stories, she wants to know what happened.
Now this is the part that might become a sticking point for some. A beloved character who has engaged in an affair outside of marriage, a child born out of wedlock; there are mentions of a couple of characters in the book who are homosexuals, but they are only mentioned by way of explanation, they are not glorified for their bent, there is minimal swearing, and it is not for shock value or to add words to a page. It is usually used in a form of disbelief at something that has happened that wasn’t expected. No matter how war is presented, it is not pretty. People do and say ugly things. That is a byproduct of war. This is to inform you, to make you aware that though this is not a terrible story, it IS a terrible story! The practices of the Germans during the occupation were downright ugly. You don’t have to read much to find that out in any other book about the war. Though horrible things are talked about in this book, they are done so tastefully that you should not be offended by their telling. It is a truth that needs to be remembered when the world tries to scream that it never happened.
Last year I got to spend two weeks in Europe with my nephew and his school group touring Paris, Munich, Dresden, Prague and Berlin. The highlight of the trip, for me, was a day trip to Normandy. We got to see Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and the American Cemetery. The drive from Paris to Normandy goes through a lot of small villages that were right in the path of all the armies. We got to stand in the bunkers on the cliffs, and see the guns that were used against the allies as they stormed the beaches. I was truly hoping I would get to catch a glimpse of the Channel Islands from where we stood, but the weather was not quite good enough for that. I did stand there looking out over the water imagining the island and the people I had read of as they endured the long years of occupation. I was fortunate to visit Dachau. Fortunate seems a strange word to use for such a place, but it’s true. To see where the prisoners lived and died was quite sobering; especially as I walked across the creek to see the crematoriums, the large brick ovens used nonstop. There is a statue near that building in honor of the victims. The inscription on the statue reads: “Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung” (A warning or reminder from the dead to the living). It reminded me of the todt workers in TGLPPS. All I could do was stand there and cry. I will never forget any of that, or the sights in Munich or Berlin.
If you have read this book, I would encourage you to also listen to the audio version. It is read word for word by several different actors as the different characters in the written text. It is engaging and heartfelt. In my humble opinion, you will love it!