“We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”
— Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and
Potato Peel Pie Society
Everything most people know about the British Channel Island of Guernsey is what they learned by reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Like many others I was enchanted by the book and I was happy to flesh out my knowledge of the island when our recent cruise stopped there.
For the uninitiated, the book tells the story of a group of islanders who experienced the German occupation of Guernsey in World War II. (The Channel Islands, just a few miles off the coast of France, were the only part of Britain to be occupied by Germany.) Guernsey was “very heavily fortified [by Germany] during World War II out of all proportion to the island’s strategic value” (Wikipedia) and many fortifications of that period remain. “Potato Peel Pie” is historical fiction, and provides a warmly personalized account of the years of hardship, a tale which might be grim as straight history.
Touring an island to see the sites important to a fictional story required careful phrasing on descriptions of some places. Well-known places like the Little Chapel and St. Peter Port are well known and require no verification. But for characters who didn’t really live here we were shown examples of what they might have inhabited. We saw a lovely and comfortable house typical of the one Amelia Maugery might have had — where the group enjoyed the contraband roast pig dinner which kept them out past curfew, thus requiring the on-the-spot invention of the “literary society.”
Right across the lane was the home of Dawsey Adams, the pig farmer, who was called in to butcher the beast which fell outside the German livestock census. The farm home and barn presented as Dawsey’s home was a far cry from the 2 or 3 story Midwestern style white or red clapboard barn I had imagined!
Most of the children and many adults were evacuated from Guernsey in anticipation of the German invasion. Our tour guide passed around the German-issued identity card used by one of her husband’s relatives during the occupation. Aunt Amy had stayed on as resident housekeeper for her father and brother who opted to stay on the island, and carried the card at all times as required.
During the occupation residents were not allowed to use any motorized vehicles. They could get around by bicycle, horse-drawn cart or on foot. Guernsey is only 25 square miles, but ‘going into town’ could be much more of an outing than I had imagined while reading the book. Our guide reported that people outside the city centers had a slightly easier – and less hungry – life during the occupation as they could keep chickens or grow gardens. And yet, especially toward the end of the war, everyone was very hungry, both occupiers and occupied, and these meager sources were subject to raids and theft.
A movie version based on the book has been in the works for several years with many changes in director and cast. Along the way Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet (Titanic), and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) have been part of the plans but none of those are mentioned now. Stay tuned.
I always enjoy visiting places I have read about, trying to fit my imagined people into the streets, houses, and fields I see. Guernsey looked as attractive to me as it did to Juliet Ashton from London. I recommend a visit or at least a reading of the book to appreciate this little corner of Britain yourself.
Finally, for those who are interested, here is a recipe for Potato Peel Pie, from a postcard I purchased in St. Peter Port.
Potato Peel Pie
1 lb. potatoes
½ cup of milk
2 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
¼ oz. butter
1 little flour
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes thinly, retaining the peel, and slice them. Place a layer of potatoes in a pie dish followed by a layer of thinly sliced onions and repeat until pit dish is full. Mix together the peel, flour and seasoning and sprinkle on top of the mixture. Pour over the mile and finish with the breadcrumbs. Dot the butter over the surface and back in a moderate oven* for about 2 hours.
* 350 degrees
from A Flavour of Guernsey by Alpha Wearing
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
1 September 2016