by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

book gurnseyAs 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.


  1. Oh, yes! One of my forever favorites, read a year or two ago, and always intended to research its history. Now you’ve reminded me, and I shall do so, NOW, Thanks!

  2. I first listened to this book on audio. It was wonderful to have a different voice for every character. I listen to it every time I go on a road trip, because as soon as I hear it , it puts a smile on my face. It is my second favorite book, next to To Kill a Mockingbird. I would have to say I have a crush on both Dorsey Adams and Atticus Finch.

  3. Thanks for reminding me of one of my very favorite books. I went looking for more by the author after I had finished it and was devastated to know she had died and her niece seems to have written primarily for children.

  4. I’m like Julie and have heard it at least twice on audio, as a way to while away the miles on a road trip…(I looked for it at the library for a second road trip just to renew the good experience again.) I’m sure reading it would also be something I’d repeat. I’ve recommended it several times, and my friends report back that they also enjoyed it. Great choice!

  5. I loved this book on so many levels. It reminded me of Nevil Shute’s writings of that era…and his ability to include the trivial with the terrible.
    Thanks for bringing this story to mind.

  6. This has to be one of my very favorite books, EVER, of all time. And that’s saying alot, because I’ve read thousands. I love the style in which this was written, I became invested in ALL of the characters, and couldn’t wait to turn each page, and was so sad when I’d finished. LOVED the ending of the book; I just wanted it to go on and on forever. Sigh. THESE are the kinds of books that have made reading my favorite thing to do. If I were ever stranded on a deserted island, and could bring ONE thing with me, it would be this book. And a tube of lip balm. Ok, two things.

    • You know about me and lip balm, right? And yes, this would be a good book to have. So thought-provoking. I think when people say “character drives plot” this is the kind of writing they mean.

  7. This is one of my favorite books, too. So much so, that three Christmases ago I ordered 12 copies and gave one to each of my dearest friends. They all loved it, too, which I suppose is why we’re friends!

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