For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘World War II

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, New York: The Dial Press, 2008, 277 pp.

guernseycover1I long ago lost count of all the people who told me I should read this book. It has been wildly popular among my friends and reading buddies. I knew I would enjoy the story, but I’m just not a fan of epistolary novels. The letter-writing pattern just wears on me after awhile, so I put off reading this one for only that reason. In the end, the story was well worth the effort to weed through my dislike of the genre.

The story takes place shortly after World War II on Guernsey Island, one of the islands in the English Channel that was occupied by the Germans and completely cut off from all outside contact for most of the war. During that time, a group of islanders formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a gathering for the discussion of books, poetry and classical literature. The group bonds together for their mental and emotional survival. The epistles form when a member of the group writes to a London author who has previously owned a copy of his favorite book. The author, Juliet, becomes intrigued by their story and begins correspondence with the group. Eventually, she goes to visit, and the letters turn to her reports of the stories of the islanders and their community.

The two featured women in the story are the chief letter-writer/narrator, Juliet, who undergoes her own healing and transformation as a result of her interaction with the Guernsey community; and Elizabeth, the founder of the Literary Society and its chief spirit and architect. Elizabeth was taken captive by the Germans during the war, and has not returned home. The Society members are raising her young daughter collectively. The story unpacks not only the history and impact of the Society, but Elizabeth’s powerful impact, her story and her daughter’s future.

It is a charming story, with moving characters. It feels very British, and the characters in my mind bore a strong resemblance to the community in The Vicar of Dibley, quirky yet fiercely kind to one another. I did not find them individually powerful and memorable, but the spirit of them as a collective body was.

One beautiful glimpse that struck me powerfully came in a letter from Amelia Maughery, a Guernsey woman who had lost her son in the war.

Visitors offering their condolences, thinking to comfort me, said ‘Life goes on.” What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on; Ian is dead now and will be dead tomorrow and next year and forever. There’s no end to that. But perhaps there will be an end to the sorrow of it. Sorrow has rushed over the world like the waters of the Deluge, and it will take time to recede. But already, there are small islands of–hope? Happiness? Something like them, at any rate. (104)

The writing is beautiful, the characters charming, the story and setting fascinating. A good read.

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Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, Random House, 2003, 490 pp.

franklin-winstonI tend to move through various eras in my historical interests. In the last decade, I’ve spent time with the Revolutionary War heros, then Progressive Era, then most recently with Lincoln. I was ready for a new era, and I felt ready to look again at the Depression and Second World War. Franklin and Winston seemed like a good place to start.

Jon Meacham has assembled a fascinating collection of material to tell the story of the intimate personal relationship of these two political giants. He quotes liberally from their letters and cables to one another, as well as detailed accounts from those who were present at their many of their meetings such as Harry Hopkins, Averill Harriman, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clementine and Mary Churchill, as well as others who were present at only one or two dinner parties with Roosevelt and Churchill together.

The story he tells is not quite as interesting as I had hoped it would be. Neither a close personal rapport nor a tempestuous alliance, Roosevelt and Churchill’s friendship weathered good times and difficult ones, periods of close connection and tension. They could spat and get on each others’ nerves, or they could be each other’s chief supporters, and it changed depending on the circumstances. Churchill, it seems, held his heart far more open than the more compartmentalized Roosevelt, but that was a matter of personality and style rather than affection. Always, it is illuminating to gain insight into the personalities of famous historical figures. Roosevelt and Churchill, for me, always existed as figures in photographs and old black and white news clips, already iconic, with their images set and legacy clear. Meacham’s account reminds the reader of the men as ordinary yet extraordinary people, caught up in leadership at a historic moment for the world.

Meacham is a good storyteller, but he lacks the strong thesis of a more academic historian. The thesis of the book is simply that the personal connection forged between Roosevelt and Churchill was critical to the outcome of the war and the future of the world. Meacham then chronicles that relationship, rather than analyzes it. It is interesting enough to read his reporting, but I hoped for more critical insight. He offers a quite romantic view of each of  the men. They both had big personalities and big flaws, which Meacham minimizes into delightful quirks of personality.

Franklin and Winston was interesting as a study, but not richly insightful. I wish Meacham had been bolder in his assertions.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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