The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
World War II has just ended. Juliet Ashton’s book Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War remains popular, but she is exhausted from her speaking engagements across England. As she seeks an idea for her next book, the London-based author receives a strange letter from Guernsey in the Channel Islands. This novel is a collection of letters between Juliet and others, such as her publisher, Sidney, his sister, Sophie (who is Juliet’s best friend), and residents of Guernsey Island.
A Guernsey man named Dawsey Adams stumbles on a book by Charles Lamb. The notes inside indicate it once belonged to Juliet. He writes her a letter, eager to read more books by Charles Lamb and discuss Lamb’s work. His note mentions how much the book meant to him during the German occupation of his island. Dawsey says he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The name intrigues Juliet, and she asks for more information. She begins to correspond with Dawsey and his fellow Society members. These include Amelia, the women who inadvertently started the Society, Eben, an old fisherman who loves Shakespeare, Isola, a quirky Bronte fan who makes potions, Booker, a servant who convinced the Germans he was Lord of a manor, and others. The more Juliet learns about their sometimes heartwarming, sometimes shocking war experiences, the more she’s convinced her next book should tell their story. She longs to travel to Guernsey and meet the group.
A wealthy publisher in London has asked Juliet to marry him. She feels ambivalent and decides she must spend some time in Guernsey to gain clarity about her future. The Society welcomes her and sets her up in the home of a woman who was one of their beloved founders, Elizabeth McKenna. Elizabeth was arrested during the war for aiding a prisoner, and the Society continues to seek information on her whereabouts. As Juliet soaks in the beauty and warmth of the people and landscape, she learns more about the Society and Elizabeth.
One night during the war, Amelia had decided to cook a pig she’d hidden from the Germans, who normally seized all edible livestock. She invited her neighbors to join her, though she didn’t know some of them well. They all enjoyed the feast together, but several were caught by German soldiers while walking home after curfew. The quick-thinking Elizabeth told the soldiers they were returning from a meeting of their literary society.
From then on, the members continued to meet so they wouldn’t arouse suspicion. The ruse led the not-so-literary neighbors to begin reading and discussing books. One neighbor created a recipe for potato peel pie at a time when food was scarce. The Society members developed unexpected bonds of friendship and an affection of literature.
The more Juliet learns about Elizabeth, the more she knows her story should center on this bold, gregarious woman. She hears stories of Elizabeth’s affair with a German soldier named Christian, who planned to return and marry her after the war. Society members thought highly of Christian for his efforts to help the townspeople and were saddened to learn he had drowned when Allied bombers attacked his ship.
Elizabeth gave birth to his daughter, Kit. As a young mother, Elizabeth helped a neighbor hide a sick prisoner who had escaped from the Germans. Both the prisoner and Elizabeth were later arrested and taken from the island. Society members lovingly took turns raising Kit in her mother’s absence.
While Juliet is in Guernsey, Society members receive a long letter from a woman named Remy. She knew Elizabeth in the Ravensbrück concentration camp and reports that Elizabeth was killed trying to save another young woman. Remy says Elizabeth told her wonderful stories about the Society, so Dawsey and the others help her travel to Guernsey for a visit.
Juliet keeps in regular contact with Sidney and Sophie, and often hears from her London admirer who wants her to return. Juliet is happier than she’s even been, living with her new friends on the island. She becomes Kit’s primary caregiver and wants to adopt the little girl. She also finds herself falling for Dawsey. But Juliet is convinced Dawsey has feelings for Remy, and Sidney’s frequent visits make some suspect Juliet loves him.
Isola, who hosts Sidney at her home and writes to him, knows Sidney is gay. She, too, is convinced Dawsey likes Remy, and she decides to play detective to find evidence. She later tells Juliet she was surprised that she found no keepsakes of Remy in Dawsey’s home. She did find a number of pictures, letters and other trinkets that are mementos of Juliet. Juliet decides to seize the day and asks Dawsey to marry her. She invites Sidney to give her away at her upcoming wedding.
During the war, Isola resorts to burning the book of Revelation and part of Job to keep warm. A self-righteous Christian woman named Adelaide writes to Juliet to warn her about the members of the Society. Adelaide believes she is speaking the word of God when she is shocking and terrifying a group of children who have just been separated from their parents.
She tells Juliet how she confronted Elizabeth when she saw her with the German soldier. She claims she didn’t take pride in her behavior because that wouldn’t be Christian. Juliet wonders how the Bronte sisters could produce good writing under the influence of their religious aunt, who preached that God meant women to be meek, mild and melancholic.
Juliet makes notes in a religious pamphlet she reads, pondering whether the Ten Commandments are the Word of God or crowd control rules. She mentions that Charles Lamb taught someone to say the Lord’s Prayer backward. Society members discuss original sin and predestination for two hours at one meeting. Remy asserts that if there is predestination, then God is the Devil. No one argues, because they all agree no good God would intentionally design places like Ravensbrück.
Other Belief Systems
Isola is a practicing witch. One of Juliet’s friends says meeting someone new and having the person pop up in your thoughts is a kind of grace. It throws a kind of energy into the world and draws in fruitfulness. Elizabeth gives her father’s war medal to a young boy as he was being taken to the mainland. She tells him it is a magic badge, and nothing will happen to him while he wears it.
The Lord’s name is frequently used in vain. B--ch, s---, h---, d--n, b--tard, a--, p--- and whore appear.
Himmler, one of Hitler’s men, implemented a plan called Death by Exhaustion. The idea was to work people hard, not waste food on them and let them die because they were replaceable.
Guernsey animals are taken by the truckload to shelters and put to sleep in rapid succession for two days straight. People are sucked out of windows due to the force from bomb blasts. A German soldier skins, boils and eats a cat.
One Society members tells Juliet how he had to dig pits for bodies at a concentration camp. He thought he’d lost his mind because both living and dead people looked like corpses. When the trenches were full, the soldiers poured gas all over the bodies and set them on fire. They made the prisoners’ band play polka music while bodies were carried away to be burned.
Remy reports women in her camp weren’t given sanitary rags and had to let blood run down their legs during menstruation. Guards sometimes used the bloody mess as an excuse to torture a woman. Elizabeth was killed when she stood up for a menstruating girl being beaten by soldiers. Guards shot Elizabeth in the head. Remy says guards once sprayed a high-pressure hose into cells. One young pregnant girl died, frozen to the floor.
As the war was ending, Germans released the prisoners from Ravensbrück. The prisoners were weak and had nowhere to get food, and many died on the road out of the camp. Remy was almost one of them, but a company of American soldiers saved her.
Remy is traumatized while at Guernsey when she sees a dog. She recalls how the Germans once riled up their dogs and released them on the women during roll call just for fun.
Dawsey recounts the story of how Charles Lamb came home to find his mother stabbed to death and father bleeding at the hands of Lamb’s knife-wielding sister.
Juliet mentions a man who maintained two separate households with two wives and families. She says it’s no wonder he took the drug laudanum. Elizabeth has an affair with a German soldier and gives birth to Kit.
A Society member writes to Juliet about the brothels frequented by the Germans. He expresses sympathy for the women who had to work in them and says he lashed out at an aunt who laughed about a boat full of prostitutes dying at sea.
Sidney tells Isola he will never marry Juliet because he is homosexual. Isola promises to keep his secret and mentions that Booker, another Society member, is also gay. One Society member shares what he’s read about Lesbia and her lover.
Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.
Alcohol: One of Sidney’s authors is an alcoholic. Sidney goes to Australia to find the man and help him sober up.
Lying/Deception: Members of the Society tell various lies to the Germans during wartime.
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