Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reading a novel of letters -- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It takes skill to pull off an epistolary novel. That's one of the reasons I was so impressed by "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," co-written by American aunt/niece duo Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows. The authors reveal the story through letters from the main characters. The voices ring out through the letters, a lost art, unfortunately. You can find out so much about a person through letters, material you won't get through Twitter and Facebook.

One of the fascinating things about "Guernsey" is how much we learn about communication in the England of 1946. Letters to Guernsey on the Channel islands arrive by boat and airplane. Characters send cables and telegrams. On the island, note are slipped under doors. There are phone calls that are recalled via letter. When they aren't writing, people talk to one another, hang out together and take walks. They later write letters about it.

On the surface, the book is about the main character's effort to find a suitable topic for her next book. Juliet Ashton's claim to fame is her biography of one of the benighted Bronte sisters, Anne. She followed this up with a collection of newspaper columns she wrote during the war, "Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War." Ashton's plucky alter-ego recounts, with humor, her spirited efforts to make it through the home front during the Battle of Britain.

Did you know that the Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazis during World War Two? I guess I did, in an offhand sort of way. The occupation went from 1940-45, which is longer than some of Europe's German-occupied countries. The Channel Islands were isolated, closer to France than England. The British War Office realized bombing or invasion would kill more civilians than have any lasting effect on the war. A Resistance existed, with citizens sabotaging the Germans in subtle and unusual ways. Some hid escaped Todt (imprisoned) workers. That spells doom for one of the islanders, Elizabeth McKenna. She is sent to a Nazi concentration camp and, for most of the book, we await news on her fate. We also await the future path of Elizabeth's daughter Kit, conceived in an illicit affair with a German officer who was more human being than Nazi automaton.

The novel is a bit of a potboiler. Will Juliet find love with the American millionaire or the rugged islander? Will she adopt Kit? Will he ever write the book about Guernsey occupation during the war? Alas, dear reader, you have to read the book made up of many letters. Or you can watch the cable series (Showtime, I think) in the works for 2018.

As you know, the book is best.

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