For Pity Sake Publishing

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – reflection by Jennifer McDonald

Because she couldn’t bear to part with her own much-loved copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Jen has purchased a brand new one (with the movie tie-in cover). Comment on the blog to go in the running to grab a copy!

Before a friend recommended I read this book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, my knowledge or interest in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy was tenuous at best. The 1980s BBC TV series Bergerac (where a pre-Midsomer Murders John Nettles played a maverick detective, tearing around the island of Jersey in a 1947 Triumph Roadster) was about the extent of my acquaintance with these islands located in the English Channel.

‘That’s a bit of a mouthful for a book name,’ I recall saying to my recommender-friend at the time. She responded by saying The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was the most beautiful book with the most interesting backstory that she’d read to date.

Point of interest number one is that the book is an epistolary in its entirety. It is a carefully constructed series of letters from the main character, Juliet Ashton, to various people including (but not exclusive to) her publisher, Sidney Stark; his sister, Sophie Strachan (nee Stark); and a farmer from Guernsey, Dawsey Adams.

This paper trail of missives starts in January 1946, less than a year since the end of the war in Europe and Guernsey’s cruel occupation by the Germans. London is in ruins and Juliet has embarked on a promotional tour for her book Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, a collection of witty and enormously popular newspaper columns poking fun at the war years in London when, presumably, laughter was at a premium.

As she is about to depart on her author tour, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams on Guernsey. Dawsey has come into the possession of a copy of Essays of Elia  by Charles Lamb that Juliet once owned, taking the time to write her name and address on the inside front cover. Through their correspondence Juliet learns of the hardships and isolation Guernsey residents endured during the German occupation and how the chance establishment of a literary society was their saviour.

I won’t tell you too much more about the plot, dear reader, because that would deprive you of the laughter, tears and astonished gasps that you will, no doubt, experience when you read it.  Suffice it to say that thanks to a clever, intricate and wonderous sequence of letters, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reveals itself in much the same way as those National Geographic flowers blossoming in slow motion.

Point of interest number two is how the book came into being in the first place.  It is the first and only novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, a 70-year-old former librarian. Shaffer became stranded on Guernsey during a visit in 1976 when heavy fog grounded all the planes and kept the boats in harbour. It was in the airport shop that Shaffer picked up a copy of a book entitled Jersey Under the Jack-Boot which kickstarted her interest in the wartime experiences of the Channel Islands.

It took many years and much goading from her own book club before Mary Ann Shaffer wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was finally published in 2009. Apparently, Shaffer once said, ‘All I wanted was to write a book that someone would like enough to publish.’ Well, she got her wish but when the manuscript was in its final stages, Mary Ann’s health started to fail. She enlisted the help of her niece, Annie Barrows, also an author, to take over the final edits required to ready the manuscript for publication. Unfortunately, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in 2008 without ever seeing the book in print.  One can’t help but be moved by this sad yet inspiring back story that speaks to a great love of books, writing and storytelling, without actually saying it out loud.

And now this beautifully written, heart-warming, tragic but uplifting book is a motion picture to be released Australia-wide on 19 April. Lily James (War and Peace, Baby Driver) plays Juliet Ashton; Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey, The Imitation Game) is Sidney Stark, and Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones, The Age of Adeline) is Dawsey Adams.

More than ever before, I hope the film’s director, Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral Fame) not only stays faithful to the book’s story but captures the heart-essence of this amazing work.

The movie trailer looks promising and I laughed out loud at the last scene when Sidney Stark turns the first page of Juliet Ashton’s manuscript and says, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Crikey that’s quite a mouthful.’ I know how he feels.

Comment on this post to go in the running to win a brand new, movie-linked edition of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society compliments of For Pity Sake.

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  1. Suz Reply

    One of my all time favourite books which, with every reading, brings more joy and more insight into the existence of this tiny island and what happened during WW2 and not just because of the character, Juliet Ashton. I have to admit I am a bit worried about seeing the film in case it ruins my interpretation of the novel. Regardless, Let it be said that this book will remain on my “re-read” list for some years to come!!

    • Jennifer McDonald Reply

      Agreed, Suz. I’m a bit concerned the movie won’t live up to my expectations too. However, I’m encouraged by the casting and the trailer looks okay so they might make a good fist of it. Congrats on being the first to comment on this post, winning a brand new copy of the book.

  2. Tony Blackie Reply

    A fantastic review, I definitely want to read it now. The history of the Channel islands is incredible and the story of the occupation during WWII is fascinating, mainly because much of it is still untold. thank you for the review.

  3. Jenny Macaulay Reply

    I haven’t read the book but have seen and loved the film. I am interested to hear from someone who has done both.

  4. Ana Reply

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a historical novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows that was published in 2008. The novel is set in 1946 and is composed of letters written from one character to Read More potato peel society

  5. Cindy Reply

    Well, the film has come out, and I now own it on DVD, and have watched it again and again. I absolutely loved the book – it was the best thing I’d read in a very long time. The characters are so loving and loveable, and have a special bond that people who go through a traumatic experience, such as a war, together often have. In their case, they also have the bond through reading.

    It’s been some months since you wrote this article, Dave, and I wondered how you enjoyed the film. I hope you weren’t disappointed. I read it quite a while ago, not long after publication, so can’t remember it well enough to make a comparison. I may need to read it again.

    There were certainly a few Downton Abbey cast members in this film – Lily James (Juliet), who played one of my favourite characters in Downton, and the gorgeous Matthew Goode (Sidney), Penelope Wilton (Amelia), and also Jessica Brown Findlay (Elizabeth).

  6. Jennifer Reply

    Hi Cindy – Jen here. I wrote this piece after re-reading the book before I went to see the film version. Like you, I noticed there were a number of favourite Downton Abbey actors in the film and was very pleased about that. I liked the film very much and feel that is was as faithful to the spirit of the book as a celluloid rendering can be. The only thing that disappointed me slightly was the Mark Reynolds character. The actor, Glen Powell (last seen by me at least as John Glenn in ‘Hidden Figures’) was great in the role but it’s how the screen version of his relationship with Juliet played out that bothered me a little. It was too ‘typecast, wartime American in England’ for my liking, but if that’s all I can find wrong with Guernsey’s film version then I guess all’s well. You’ve inspired me to watch it again. Thanks for reading this blogpost and taking the time to comment. All the best – Jen

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