When I first saw the film Midnight in Paris, I was immediately struck by the identification of a feeling I had felt since I was little. In the film, a character explains Golden Age Thinking, which is the feeling that one would have been happier if they lived in a different time. I can’t explain why I feel this way. It’s one of those intuition things that just resonate within your center — it is simply a part of who I am. I long for the days of letter-writing on typewriters, tailored and sophisticated clothing, that sense of honor and basic humanity that we somehow seem to have lost along the way.
That is not to say I would like to return to the years of famine, bombings and concentration camps that plagued Europe in the years during and following World War II. But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society gave me a yearning similar to those I’ve felt for years: a desire for a past in which fascinating stories reside.
The book, told entirely through correspondence, tells the story of Juliet Ashton. She is a strong-willed and passionate young journalist who documented the war in a newspaper column and book she wrote under a pen name. Now, she is looking for a new project, and she finds one in the stories of how the inhabitants of the small island of Guernsey weathered German occupation. Juliet is initially contacted by Dawsey Adams who lives on Guernsey, and the two connect through a shared love of the written word. Juliet is then connected with other residents of Guernsey who had formed a literary society during the occupation. Soon, Juliet is entrenched in the lives of this group of misfits who have grown into a family.
I think the most interesting part of this book is its characters. Each person is unique in how they fight the occupation and seek refuge in the literary society. But they are connected by shared trauma and hope. There is Amelia, the matriarch of the group who initially brought them all together. There is (my favorite) Isola, the strange girl on the island who makes potions and tinctures to cure whatever ails her fellow residents; yet, she also yearns for their acceptance and dreams of days when she could live a “normal” life. There is Eben, an older farmer with a grandson to mentor, and Kit, the daughter of a mother arrested for crimes against the German soldiers.
Elizabeth, Kit’s mother, is a constant, looming presence that brings both hope and tension as her friends wait to hear news about her. In the meantime, the society takes care of Kit, who is just as headstrong and stubborn as her mother. While it may be easy to get lost in the high number of characters, each one plays an important part in the flow of the story as they add their own unique perspective to various situations and historical happenings. They are richly detailed and inherently human in how they persevere through their despair to see the hope and silver linings on the other side. They are the kind of people you would hope to meet in a new place: warm, welcoming, interesting and ready to share their lives with you if through nothing else than a book and a warm cup of tea.
The plot moves along steadily, beginning with Juliet’s quest to find a new subject, to the arrival of a mysterious admirer, to the first guarded letters between Juliet and the literary society. The writers, Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, sneak in moments in longer letters where characters reveal their personal histories through engaging anecdotes, as well as baring their true personalities to a stranger. We learn of each character’s past, before and during the occupation, and how they felt at each moment. Some of the strongest writing is in the retelling of tension filled moments such as the gathering of the children on Guernsey to be sent to the country on the mainland; and the starving Jewish slave at death’s door when two members found him and took him in; and the joy the society shared over a potato peel pie when there was nothing else to eat. Even when the letters are simple check-ins, each one provides another clue as to what Juliet learns before and after she travels to Guernsey. She becomes an honorary member, filling a void in the society’s life. The story is humorous and heartbreaking but does not rely on the blood and gore of the time to tell its story. Rather, it relies on human interactions and how simple kindnesses can provide the smallest slivers of hope in the face of the greatest adversities faced in human history.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is extraordinarily beautiful and has become one of my favorite books. It has all of the hallmarks that make a good story: vibrant characters, tension, high stakes, visual detail, and the real emotions we as humans feel in the face of both tragedy and hopeful opportunities for the future. While I recommend reading the book for its beauty and the pleasurable experience, it is also important to read a story about WWII from these perspectives. I don’t think I’ve read any other book about the atrocities of the war from the perspective of European citizens in this way. They experience everything in a much, much different way than the concentration-camp survivors that we most often hear from. This is not to discredit their stories, but rather to show the pain and suffering experienced by those they left behind. It is a testament to the comprehensive devastation that the war brought across England, and it is important that we remember the lesser known suffering and perseverance of Europe as a whole.
What did you think of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? What do you think of the use of correspondence to tell the story? Do you think it complimented or hindered the overall development of plot, character, etc.? How can fictional writing help to tell important stories about historical events? Let’s talk.