Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nazis and Potato Peel Pie

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Random House, 2008) 277 pages

At first one believes our heroine, the writer Juliet Ashton, to be just another British eccentric - a little spoiled and petulant, flighty and nervous - who has survived a turbulent period in British history during WWII by writing books based on a slightly quirky fictional character named Izzy Bickerstaff. In January 1946, when the story opens, we only know her through her correspondence with various friends and colleagues: best friend Sophie, her publisher Sydney, other colleagues.

In a perfect storm of coincidence, Juliet is looking for a new topic for a future book. Coincidentally she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a farmer and admirer of the writer Charles Lamb, living on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. He relates a story of a literary society formed during the war to outwit the Germans when Guernsey was under Nazi occupation from 1940-45.

The keeping and eating of pigs was forbidden. One night when the locals were indulging in this forbidden treat and on their way to their respective homes they were stopped by the Nazis who asked what they had been up to. One woman, the resourceful Elizabeth McKenna, claimed that they had been at a literary society and they were released that night unharmed. Under the guise of eating their forbidden food secretly they kept up the pretense of a literary society and amended the name of the society to include "potato peel pie" as one member refused to meet without the inclusion of this war-time dish at the meetings.

Soon other Guernsey inhabitants (the vegetable seller and sometime "witch" Isola, the fisherman Eben and blacksmith Will Thisbee, creator of the famous potato peel pie) add their stories by letter to Juliet and she soon has the beginnings of her new book.

I was unaware of the history of Guernsey during the war and was intrigued by the historic details of the occupation: boats were confiscated so that Guernsey inhabitants couldn't leave for England - some trid and drowned in the attempt. Slave labour was employed on the island and Islanders were sent to Belsen for infractions of the Nazis' new laws. Pets were set free (or abandoned) and then euthanized when their numbers swelled. The chicken population was controlled, curfews imposed, food and soap rationed.

One begins to understand the secrecy regarding the keeping of pigs when the Guernsey residents explain the Nazis' propensity for cataloguing. Each birth and death of a pig was documented with a certificate and deaths had to be verified by an official.

Elizabeth becomes a more central character in the history ... after a liaison with a German captain named Christian Hellman with honorable intentions she gives birth to a girl (Christina or Kit as she is known). The father disappears (I will not reveal how here) but when Elizabeth shelters and feed a slave labourer after Kit's birth she is arrested and sentenced to prison on the continent.

We learn more of Elizabeth's fate after she is deported and what becomes of her daughter Kit once Juliet arrives in Guernsey and forms a close relationship with the Islanders as she writes her book about the Occupation. Guernsey takes a more somber tone. Juliet's twittery communications are more sober and we focus more on the history of the island rather than Juliet's flighty witticisms. I think other readers might find her inane pronouncements charming. May we say that we were not amused?

Juliet is entranced by Kit, Elizabeth's orphaned daughter. You would have to be insensible not to divine where this plot is heading. There is also a meandering and not credible (to my mind) subplot about a romantic triangle formed by the rich, debonair but impossibly bad-tempered Markham V. Reynolds, Juliet and Dawsey Adams, the sweet tempered pig farmer from Guernsey. Somehow neither seem  plausible suitors to me.

On the very last pages a light went off in my head triggered by a heavy handed reference to Jane Austen's Darcy - ooohhhh, Dawsey is meant to be the silent, proud Darcy (but not fabulously rich) while the aristocratic Reynolds is presumably the untrustworthy Wickham (but not fabulously poor).

Another silly subplot involves the potential theft of letters allegedly written by Oscar Wilde and addressed to Isola's grandmother which are kept in a biscuit tin - this is too precious for words. The thief is foiled, the plot dribbles on towards the end.

When I learned that co-author Mary Ann Shaffer was a Californian who had visited Guernsey once but was obsessed with British history and literature it made more sense. The characters are such silly and eccentric caricatures, they read like poor imitations of characters in badly written books with British characters.

Maybe I've had bad month and this has soured my reading mood, or maybe this is just an awfully contrived and silly book. Maybe.


5Rings said...

i'm thinking sour might be the right wasn't god's gift to literature, but it was a nice light read. Maybe try it again later.

Christine said...

I thought it was light and fun -- and, yeah, a bit a silly. I don't usually enjoy books like this but it was pleasant to read in the tub.

Cheryl said...

I could barely get through the first half, then suddenly I could not put it down. Loved the description of Nazi occupation.

It wasn't as cheesy as Breaking Dawn, anyway!