Book review: ‘The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Guernsey Island is one of the Channel Islands between Great Britain and France. During World War II, it was occupied by the Germans in their attempt to invade Great Britain as part of their effort to gain control of all of Europe.

During the war, Juliet had written newspaper columns under the pseudonym Izzy Bickerstaff. Following the war, the columns, as humorous as they could be during a war, were collected into a book, “Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War.” The book sold well, and Juliet was in process of expanding the sales through a book tour. She was also attempting to discover a topic for her next book. When a member of literary society of Guernsey Island took her address from a book jacket and contacted her for information, it set off a series of events that ultimately determined the next book and the course of her life.

It turns out that there was a book club on Guernsey Island named “The Literary and Potato Peel Society.” The name came about through the quick thinking of one of the charter members, Elizabeth McKenna, as she sought to give the German soldiers a reason so many people were out after curfew. In this case, the function followed the name. Individual members would choose a book, read it and take turns giving a book presentation that described what the book was about and why they liked or disliked the book, encouraging the others to read and react to it. The reasons for the individual choices were many, but the companionship of the meetings tended to be the central reason for the club during the harsh wartime.

The inquiry from Guernsey ultimately led to a wide-ranging correspondence with most members of the group. Juliet found the war experience of the society members so interesting that she began writing them for the local paper. This in turn led her to letter-developed friendships, which in turn led her to a planned visit to Guernsey Island, an event much resented by her boyfriend, Mark.

Juliet was received by the Guernsey Islanders literally with open arms. Elizabeth, the founder and soul of the society, however, was not present, as she had been shipped off to a German prison camp near the end of the war. Adelaide Addison, a busybody who considered herself socially above the members of the society, reported that Elizabeth consorted with one of the German soldiers — the enemy. This proved to be true, as they had a child together, but there was much more to the story. Of Adelaide, one of the club members says, “You do not know Miss Addison, and you are fortunate in that — she is a woman too good for daily wear.” As with many German prisoners, the hope is that Elizabeth will eventually find her way home. In the meantime, her child is being raised by the members of the Literary and Potato Peel Society.

Juliet struggles to find unity in her writing about the Guernsey experience. She finally seeks the help of her editor and friend. He quickly discovers that, yes, she does have a problem, but she also has an obvious answer. The constant through everything is Elizabeth. Find out more, she is told. You can find out more about Elizabeth, about potato peel pie and about why it is in the title. “The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” was May’s choice for the Ontario book club. Join the book club of your choice.

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