- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY

By Mary Ann Fiery Shaffer and Annie Fiery Barrows

Dial, $22, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

The Nazi hordes who invaded and occupied the British Channel Islands during World War II lived up to their reputation for brutality, but they met their match in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, founded because of the death of a pig.

There was no other part of British soil that suffered the misery of German occupation and there wasn’t much that could be done about it locally from a military standpoint except live through it. The Germans initially viewed the Channel Islands as a stopping point on their way to London, and when it didn’t turn out that way, they reacted with characteristic cruelty, starving the islanders and torturing those whom they brought from Europe to provide forced labor.

This book presents an enchanting series of letters written by Juliet Ashton, a vivacious young woman who lived through the London Blitz and poked literary fun at it in an English magazine.

She saw her home demolished by the kind of explosive that killed thousands of Londoners in the last year of the war, and which they dubbed “doodlebugs.” And she emerged in 1946, battered but with her sense of humor intact, to face life in the bleak and blasted world of post-war Britain. She is shedding the personality of “Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War” which earned her literary recognition during the war years and seeking another life. What begins that life is a letter from Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer in Guernsey, who is in possession of an ancient book of letters by Charles Lamb which bears inside its cover Juliet’s name. Dawsey wants to order more of the writings of Mr. Lamb and “there are no bookshops left on Guernsey,” as a result of German predators who burned and destroyed whereever they trod.

That is the beginning of a new world for Juliet, who manages to reject the advances of an American multimillionaire but cannot resist the appeal of the battered island survivors of Guernsey. It is also how she finds out about Guernsey’s secret weapon, the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The book consists of writings between Juliet and Sidney Stark, a publisher whom any author would kill to acquire, and islanders who are verbally and emotionally unleashed by the understanding and caring of someone who wants to know what they lived through. It is an epistolary record of the postwar times. And it is Dawsey who reveals the historic moment when the Society began as the result of a dinner held by a group of islanders to celebrate dining on the last of the Guernsey pigs. It is interrupted by German officers who want to know why people are out after curfew, let alone singing, and it is an explanation by Elizabeth McKenna, a tough and determined islander, that saves them. She says they were so intrigued by German literature on gardening that they forgot the time and invites the intruders to join their club.

That leads to the launching of a most exclusive society based on the consumption of a potato peel pie, with mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness and peelings for crust.

It is also the beginning of the love story of Elizabeth McKenna and Christian Hellman, a German officer trapped in a conflict he hated.

There are predictably tragic consequences with his death when he is shipped overseas, and the birth of their child, Christina, born secretly and betrayed by a Channel Islander who is living proof that not only Germans were evil. Elizabeth’s aid to a slave worker results in her being sent to her death in a German concentration camp and her child is adopted by her friends in Guernsey. These sad events emerge over a series of letters between Juliet Ashton and half a dozen Channel Islanders who eventually persuade her to move to Guernsey. Elizabeth becomes Juliet’s book and Christina becomes her adopted child and it doesn’t take much imagination to predict her romance with Dawsey the pig farmer.

Yet the fascination of the book lies not in its plot but in its re-creation of a grim and bygone world. Civilian life in London in World War II acquires the dark yet vivid image of the history of an era in which civilians became as victimized as those who fought the war and who also had to cope with the aftermath problems of the once powerful and now bankrupt British Empire. The unimaginable became a daily reality in the life of women like Juliet Ashton, and, even worse, was almost mundane in its repetitive horror.

The impact of her letters is sharpened by their pragmatic presentation, in which a dark humor survives while emotion is always controlled. She makes it clear that in those days, a happy ending was a rare rainbow on the British. horizon.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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