BookBin2010: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I veered quite a distance from my last read, this time heading back in time to 1940s, post-WWII Europe to enjoy some time with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

That’s a mouthful of a title, innit? This was a recommended read that I cracked open on Monday and finished last night. Very quick read, but also very interesting. Being the ever-clueless student of slightly America-centric history classes that I am, I was completely in the dark as to any Nazi occupation within the English Channel. I’m also actually kind of embarrassed to even write that. So to read a fictional account of people’s survival during such an occupation was both informative and, thanks to authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, enjoyable.

The first thing that struck me about this novel is its epistolary format. Perhaps it’s because I tend to gravitate more toward literary genres that don’t rely on letter writing as a means of narration (we prefer to call them “Captain’s Logs,” thank you), but I have the distinct impression that this is a style of storytelling that is on the road to extinction. True, there are still epistolary novels coming out (Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Harrison Solow’s upcoming Felicity and Barbara Pym immediately come to mind), but I suppose habit-forming pastimes like texting and Twitter are bringing to a halt even regular e-mail correspondence. It was wonderful, therefore, to find a throwback to this once popular literary style.

Anyway, so this particular novel is told from multiple perspectives, relayed to readers via a collection of letters and telegrams collected from all the major players and pieced together to give us a fuller view of the unfolding action. The primary voice, I suppose you could call her, is Juliet Ashton, a writer who receives a letter from someone who introduces himself as a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As anyone would be expected to, Ashton immediately questions what precisely this society is…as well as what, pray tell, is a potato peel pie.

The answers she receives in return are the heart of the novel, as various members of the society write her to tell the tale of their survival during the occupation of Guernsey, thanks to a quick-witted and feisty resident named Elizabeth, whose lie “founded” the society. Ashton quickly grows quite fond of all the Guernsey residents who write her, as admittedly so did I, and soon she finds herself visiting them to learn even more. Shaffer and Barrows do a wonderful job of weaving a colorful and captivating tale from the myriad threads offered by society members, Ashton, and her friends. There were a few aspects of the story that I found a trifle uninteresting, but that’s because I’m not much for period-piece tales of wooing, which factors only slightly into the overall story.

How much of this book is rooted in truth I’m still discovering. I have started reading more about the occupation of the Channel islands (woots to my visitor from the island of Jersey, by the way!), and, again, am slightly embarrassed that I had no idea this even happened. So kudos to Shaffer and Barrows for introducing this silly American to a part of history to which I had been previously oblivious…and for doing it in such an engaging way.

Final Verdict: This was an enjoyable, informative, and incredibly quick read, but I don’t foresee adding this one to my collection any time soon. However, if you’re interested in a mini WWII history lesson presented by delightfully imaginary people, then you should check out this book.