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Wednesday, 24 June 2009 16:00

Humanizing literature

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial Press. 277 pages

For readers who love epistolary novels, T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. will prove to be a delight. In addition to containing bright and witty letters between a host of literate, comical and personable friends, this novel is saturated with a love for books and reading. At the heart of T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. is a profound concept: literature not only educates, it also humanizes and elevates us.

At the end of WW II, Juliet Ashton, a successful and popular English writer (Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War) prowls war-torn London in search of a subject for her next book. Since both the country and the people seem subdued and joyless in the aftermath of Germany’s devastating bombing raids, Juliet yearns for a topic that will restore confidence and optimism. At this point, she receives a “fateful” letter from a stranger living in Guernsey which is one of the Channel Islands between England and France. It is a letter that will change her life forever.

Dawsey Adams has found Juliet’s name and address on the flyleaf of a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and he writes to inquire how he may obtain additional books by this author. As it happens, Juliet has written a book about Lamb and is an ardent fan of his writings. Thus begins an incredible correspondence that will eventually grow to include the entire membership of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — a remarkable collection of eccentrics, misfits, intellectuals and pig farmers.

Juliet initiates a vigorous correspondence with the Society members — each of which has a story to tell about the five-year occupation of Guernsey by the Germans. The stories run the gamut from hilarious to heartrending. Eventually, Juliet knows that she has found the subject of her new book. She will do a detailed history of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Gradually, the members emerge as distinct and vivid personalities. Among them are: Dawsey, the silent, brooding romantic who resembles Jane Austin’s Heathcliff; Isola Pribby, who lives with a parrot named Zenobia and eventually becomes a practicing phrenologist (she divines character from the bumps on your head); Clovis Fossey, who wins the hand of Widow Hubert with Wordsworth’s poetry; Amelia, the group’s most rational member and its mainstay; and Wil Thisbee, the philosopher (who has no use for Yeats). All open their hearts and bare their souls to Juliet Ashton.

However, the most powerful personality in the Society (and its founder), Elizabeth McKenna, never speaks, for she is dead — killed by the Germans in a concentration camp shortly before the end of the war. In time, Juliet learns that Elizabeth had a child by a German soldier, who later died at sea. The Society has become the child’s guardian. These scant facts about Elizabeth leave a number of unanswered questions. In time, Juliet will find someone to answer them all.

Eventually, Juliet’s fascination with the Society members brings her to Guernsey. Although her acknowledged motive is to complete her research, it quickly becomes evident that these people have become her dearest friends; she has come to stay. Although she continues to write letters to her publisher (and Susan, her best friend and confidante in London), Juliet concentrates on Guernsey — the land, the people and the awesome scenery. Each day brings additional questions and revelations. Who was the German soldier that loved Elizabeth? What are Todt workers, and what was Elizabeth’s relationship with them? Was there a witness to Elizabeth’s death? If so, are they alive? What does Peter Sawyer know about all of this? (He is willing to tell all for a stiff drink and a photograph of Rita Hayworth.)

Naturally, there is also a love story, and it is one that would rival Jane Austin since it is fraught with melodrama, misunderstandings and suppressed passion. (Juliet has an abundance of beaus, but they are mostly the wrong kind!). In addition, Juliet’s letters (written and received) sparkle with wit, literary references and ruminations on “the human condition.” This is a stimulating book. References to Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Miss Marple are interspersed with recipes, observations on goat farming, the Society’s minutes and reports, and factual data about the German occupation of Guernsey.

If The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn’t already a best seller, it soon will be. It pushes all the right buttons: sentiment, wit and history. Does it sometimes appear “contrived”? Oh, yes, but it works. However, as a recipe, it might be a little to heavy on the sugar.

(Gary Carden is a writer, playwright and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and maintains a blog at www.tannerywhistle.net/books.)

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