Monday, July 20, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Much has been said about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrons and all of it has been unequivocably positive for it's just skirting "precious" charm and reconstruction of a place and a time at a nostalgic distance from our own.
The book IS charming, the characters not just likable but admirable people of low pretension and large old-fashioned virtues. Now why this book makes me a bit uncomfortable. Everyone is basically good, even the German occupiers of bucolic Guernsey. Christian, the long-gone father of the orphaned little girl in the book, is a noble German, worthy of respect as a person. And the girl's mother, the mythic Mary McKenna, is a brave individualist. On the spot, she makes up the story about the neighbors meeting for the book society, when they were really having a festive dinner of contraband pig.

Later for helping a Polish slave laborer, she ends up in a concentration camp, where she is killed because she will not bow to her torturers. Because Mary is exceptional, she makes her own rules--it is okay for her to have a romance with an invader--for in fact being a collaborator because she can evaluate individuals and he is good. There is evil, but an individualist can be unconventional-rebel against authority, though she may pay an awful price. In this book it's cheerily states that almost everyone on Guernsey, especially young women, wanted silk stockings, food for their families, whatever they could get from the invaders. Yet, at the same time, the books condemns the turncoasts who turn in McKenna for helping the starved Polish slave boy. They go too far in opportunism by turning in a neighbor. It's simple, people are people, you like the good, whatever side they're on and condemn the bad.

But perhaps I quibble with this sweet book in letters. It well creates the flighty and wise British writer who becomes so fascinated after corresponding with people in Guernsey that she goes there to write a book about how they experienced the War. The strong but silent pig farmer, who wins her heart over the flashy American publisher, becomes not just the triumph of true love but the inevitable victory of common sense. She fits right in with the locals and it makes her happy to do so, including adopting Mary's daughter and marrying the farmer.

Postwar Britain is a place reclaiming values and in the wholesome country people of Guernsey have suffered but the traditional ways are preserved. Their natural way of life is a balm to the war ravaged urban soul of our heroine. Her publisher, an understanding dedicated man, who happens to be gay, and his sister living in Scotland are her main correspondents besides the locals of Guernsey--an eccentric herbalist, the mysterious and quiet farmer, island aristocracy represented by an older woman of exceptional understanding and other members of the Society.
As our heroine, that rarity, an intellectual woman just short of being a bluestocking, gets to know the members of the Society, she more than solves the mystery of how Guernsey fared during the war. She learns that simple country character suits her better than the pretentious milieu of literary London personifed by her other suitor, the charismatic and acquisitive American publisher. But we the reader have seen this story before. What's underneath it is more questionable--We are to reconcile that though survival and self-interest understandably come first in extreme circumstances, idealism and self-sacrifice for what's right, are the rule. It may be asking too much of this chocolate truffle of a book, to ask for less cheery and easily resolved human conflict. Recommended for light fun reading with a happy ending, especially with sweets.

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