by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
As a rule I don’t like books that are written in letter form, but this is one of my favorite novels ever. Perhaps because it was written by two authors, they were able to give the various writers of the letters (and diary bits and telegrams, etc.) such varying voices and characters that they form a wonderful comprehensive picture of a community under stress–nice guys, mean people, weirdos, and all.
The book is about the German Occupation of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. It’s not something that has a lot of literature to it, perhaps because “A Model Occupation” (as a non-fiction book about the same subject is titled) can be embarrassing in politics. But the writing of this aunt-niece combo is just lovely. Poignant, gentle, understated elegance meets raucous humor.
The characters are believable, the situations drawn from real events. Terrible things lie next to sweetness and fun–like the letter from Micah Daniels to Juliet Ashton, dated 15 May 1946, in which he recounts “for your book” (Miss Ashton is working on a post-war history) when the Vega Red Cross ship brought the starving islanders food, and the starving German soldiers actually gave it to them–then one soldier stole an islanders’ cat and ate it.
That kind of thing.
The stories are intense, and so very human. In fact, although I suspect the late Ms. Shaffer would roll in her grave to hear this, Potato Peel reminds me of World War Z (the oral history of the Zombie Wars). They have the same straightforward storytelling, the same delivery technique (recordings versus letters, though) and the same darkness-and-light amalgamation. They’re too normal not to be believed, even as they describe one of the most horrific times in history, and one of the most horrific (and unbelievable) apocalyptic scenarios. Maybe that’s why World War Z is more popular – it didn’t happen. Many things like this in Potato Peel did. You can read about the historic research Shaffer did, and how she got interested in the Channel Islands in the first place, with a simple Google search, if you want to.
But I’d recommend reading the book first. It’s a great read, and very thought-provoking.