Book of

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Quick-reading epistolary novel about the German occupation of Guernsey in World War II. Manages to be both charming and dark, but comes down much harder on the charm than I had expected — I really thought we were headed for the murky waters of collaboration and moral ambivalence for a bit there.

I was almost relieved to find out that the book was written by Americans, because I found the period details and in particular the class elements “off”. I wondered if English society had changed so much that a young English writer would not see the historical problems that were clear to my (American, but well-read) eyes.

For instance, just noted as I went by: the Guernsey accent would have been even stronger in 1946 than it is today, possibly to the point of mutual incomprehension at times. Private people are shown flying back and forth to Australia without much qualm or difficulty, though even by plane it would have taken several days and stages at the time, and would have been very difficult to arrange without military connections. People were much less relaxed and accepting of illegitimate children, and a child with a German father would have had a particularly difficult life. No-one in the Literary Society is reading junk novels.

As an American, I can’t really properly express how the class elements are wrong, but wrong they are, pretty much down the line. There’s too much ease, not enough deference (from lower class to higher) nor enough incomprehension (from upper to lower).

One point that I happened to know about but which most Americans don’t is how much harder the years right after the war were for many people in the UK, as compared to during the war itself. Guernsey was the exception, in that they really were on the brink of starvation during the Occupation and thing got much better after VE-Day.

I first realized this aspect of UK history when I was doing a lot of work in medical and scientific history. I’d go into science library stacks to pull out old journal articles, or to just flip through old scientific journals to see what kinds of things people were doing.

There’s no more obvious way to see the effect of the World Wars. German journals, in particular, will be nice and fat in 1912, 1913, 1914 — but then pitifully thin by 1918, and recover by 1920. Again, they’ll be thick in 1937, 38, 39 — but very thin in 1944 and 1945, and recover by 1950. (I’ll see if I can get to a library and do some documentation, or maybe one of you can readily snap some pictures during a study or work break.)

The British journals, though, were thinnest in 1946-48, *after* the war was over — they took much longer to recover their size than I had expected. I don’t know all the politics and economics behind this, why the UK — which hadn’t been bombed to complete rubble the way Germany had, or the way part of Italy and France were — took so long to recover. But at least I *know* that I don’t know.

I think right now may be one of the most difficult times to write stories set during World War II. For people under 40, WWII has receded out of living memory into the realm of research. But there are still a significant number of people who personally remember the 40s, and an even larger number whose parents were in the war generation, like me. I’m too young to have first-hand knowledge of the war years, but I grew up with people who did: whose books, movies, TV shows, speech, and unspoken experience was all shaped by it. I can look at a passage of writing set in 1946, a decade before my birth, and the anachronisms will pop right out at me, while a younger person might have to fact-check every single one.

Does all this mean Guernsey Literary etc. is a *bad* book? No, just that it’s not as good as I think it could (or maybe should) be, but that for Annie Barrows to make her aunt’s book better might have been more difficult than I first thought.

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