Bourke’s Bookshelf: ‘We clung to books and to our friends’
This week’s featured read is “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows.
I’ll admit that I picked this book up at a library book sale purely for the title. I mean, how can something with “potato peel pie” in the title not draw your attention?
I had no idea what the book was about when I bought it or when I started reading, other than it’s an epistolary novel — written through a series of letters.
What I encountered was a beautiful yet tragic story of love and loss amid the German occupation of the English Channel island of Guernsey during World War II. Historical fiction isn’t usually my go-to genre, but this story was so much more than just a history lesson. I felt like the authors really poured their heart and soul into the novel. I finished the book on a flight, and the three hours in the air went by in the blink of an eye while I was engrossed in the story.
When author Mary Schaffer encountered unexpected health issues as she was nearing the end of the book, her niece Annie Barrows stepped in to see it the rest of the way through to publication. Schaffer died in February 2008, and the novel was published later that year.
‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)
Juliet Ashton is a writer, known for her comedic newspaper columns about life in England during WWII. Now post-war in 1946, as Juliet is trying to think of a subject matter for her next book — something a little more serious — she receives an unexpected letter that sets her on a life-changing path.
The letter comes from a pig farmer in Guernsey, telling Juliet he happened upon a used copy of a book that had her name and address written in it. It was a book he came to love. As there were no bookshops that survived on the island after the war, Dawsey Adams asks Juliet if she can recommend a seller in London who might be able to supply him with other works from his new favorite author. He writes of the book club he and his friends started during the war — The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The group’s name grabs Juliet’s attention, and so begins a correspondence between the two. Having been asked to write a serious column for the “London Times” on the subject of the philosophical value of reading, she asks Dawsey more about his book club and if it could become the subject of her column.
In the following days and weeks, Juliet is inundated with letters from members of the unconventional book club telling her how the camaraderie from their group helped get them through the worst of the war. Juliet quickly realizes she has to go to Guernsey to meet these book lovers for herself and see their love of literature up close. They welcome her with open arms and embrace her as one of their own, feeling like they’re already well-acquainted through their letters.
Juliet is astonished at the stories from the war, having not heard much news from the island during the five years German troops took over. Most of the children were evacuated for their safety during that time, and food was scarce. Not everyone survived, and those who did will never forget what they lost.
Juliet’s column is a hit, and she unsurprisingly finds more than enough inspiration for a novel about Guernsey’s part in the war.
The story is told through letters between Juliet and her publisher, her best friend and of course the folks in Guernsey. Once she arrives on the island, she continues corresponding with publisher Sidney Stark, telling him everything about the people she’s met and the things she’s learned. It might be hard to imagine a complete, cohesive story coming together in that format, but I think it works wonderfully and gives a note of authenticity to the time period.
I’ve recently learned books about books is one of my favorite subgenres of literature. There’s just something about finding others — real or fictional — who enjoy the same authors and stories as you do and get just as passionate about your favorite books.
It just makes me so happy.
Movie adaptation (2018)
The novel was adapted into a 2018 movie of the same name, starring Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Penelope Wilton and Matthew Goode. While I was excited to learn a movie version of the book already existed, I was even more thrilled to find out it was readily available on Netflix and it featured some of my favorite actors from the hit PBS show “Downton Abbey.” Fellow fans will recognize those who played Rose MacClare, Sybil Crawley, Isobel Crawley and Henry Tilney leading the story in Guernsey.
While it wasn’t 100% accurate in terms of the book — as no adaptation ever is — I still felt like the movie did the novel justice. There was an accelerated timeline and a few missing characters, but the overall story was portrayed wonderfully.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at
or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at