By Rachel Kovaciny
Please note: This article will discuss the book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, not the 2018 film based on the book.
I love stories that involve World War Two. All my friends know this. Ten years ago, one friend recommended I read a book with a really long, strange title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I found a copy at a library book sale not long after that and thought, why not?
When I finished reading it for the first time, I did something I never have done before or since in my entire adult life: I flipped back to the first chapter and started reading the entire thing through again. I couldn’t bear to leave those characters and that world yet!
And it’s the characters and the setting that endear this book to me. Questing Juliet, quirky Isola, staunch Amelia, sturdy Eben, winsome Kit, and wonderful Dawsey are all my imaginary friends now. I delight in revisiting them every now and then.
TGLAPPPS is told almost entirely via letters and telegrams. It has one bit at the end that is a journal entry, but the rest of it is people communicating to each other. It all begins with British author Juliet Ashton writing to her friend and publisher to alert him to how burned-out she’s feeling. She’s been on tour promoting an essay collection she wrote during WWII, which has only just ended, and she can’t figure out what to write about next. She was supposed to write another collection of light-hearted essays about serious things like she did to bolster morale during the war. But she just doesn’t have it in her anymore.
While on tour, she receives a letter from a stranger, Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island of Guernsey in the British Channel. He has a book that used to belong to her, Selected Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, and he wants to know if she could tell him how to contact a bookshop in London, where she lives. Dawsey would like to order any more of Lamb’s writings that might be available, you see. He got her address from the front cover of the book, and she was the only person he could think of who might know where he could get more books by this author he admires.
Why does his Dawsey Adams admire Charles Lamb? Because Lamb’s book made him laugh while the German Army occupied Guernsey during the war. How can Juliet resist writing back? She sends him another book by Lamb, and also gives his request to a bookseller friend of hers, who will send Dawsey all the books he wants and needs.
Dawsey writes back. Juliet replies. Dawsey’s friends on Guernsey write to her too, and she’s soon carrying on a brisk and lively correspondence with many islanders. During the German Occupation, these friends formed the titular society to discuss books and bolster each others’ spirits in those tragic times.
Juliet becomes more and more interested in the lives of her new long-distance friends and how they survived the occupation. She wonders if maybe she could write a series of articles about them and their experiences for the newspaper that employs her. Eventually she finds she can’t help but want to visit them, so she does.
One of my favorite things about this book is how often it makes me laugh, much like the reason Dawsey loved Charles Lamb’s book. Although it deals with grim subjects, it contains a great deal of love, joy, gentle cheer and hilarious moments. I also love how much these characters love books. They understand and befriend each other quickly because they have a shared history of using books to cope with hard situations. I understood and liked them quickly because I do the same.
Books have taught me what it’s like to face disappointment, sorrow, loss, happiness, peace, and joy. I’ve learned from fictional people how to become a better person. And I’ve learned how to appreciate and relish my own life by reading about the hardships and triumphs of others.
Strangers can bond over words, as this book shows us, but I already knew that to be true. After all, a friend told me to read this book in the first place because she knew what sorts of things I like to read and write. And I’ve been finding friends between the pages of books and bonding with them via their words all my life. Have you?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com