Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Potato Peel Pie

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows takes place mainly in the channel island of Guernsey just after the end of Nazi occupation. The form of this novel is a series of letters, mainly between a young writer named Juliet, several Guernseyites, and her various friends and colleagues. The point of the novel is to create a vivid portrait of what life was like under Nazi occupation, using Juliet and her developing relationships to provide a framework. Her story also makes it into a tale of romance, contrasting to the recent misery and tragedy of wartime.

Starting with the title dish, potato peel pie, the novel relies on a variety of themes of food and starvation as part of the fictional re-creation of the suffering people had experienced. The people of Guernsey had used a variety of imaginative strategies to feed themselves during the occupation, including making pie from scarce potatoes and no normal sources of sweetener (they used mashed beets). The Nazi troops brought in slave laborers from other occupied lands, who were treated as expendable -- sometimes they were let out of their miserable hovels to forage, which meant stealing from the scarce resources of the native Guernesyites. Stories of the Guernsey residents who were deported to concentration camps adds to the terrible discoveries.

The literary society gave residents a way to get together without alarming the occupying soldiers. Members of the society took turns presenting their personal book reviews at group meetings. They also escaped through this activity from the starvation, betrayals, abusiveness, and selfishness that surrounded them. The reaction to books by individuals who had little reading experience was a device by which the author presented the character of the people. And sometimes it wasn't an entirely convincing device.

Once a member of the literary society, Mrs. Saussey, chose to report on her own cookbook. She described a fantasy of the food that they all wished for -- crackling roast pork, five-layer cakes containing a dozen eggs, "spun-sugar sweets, chocloate-rum balls, sponge cakes with pots of cream." All the mentioned ingredients were of course unavailable, as was enough fuel to properly cook even a scarce potato (except that they had once secretly roasted a clandestinely raised piglet). What they actually had to eat in those terrible times was cake made from ground bird seed, half-cooked potatoes, and turnip soup. (p. 103)

I wish I had liked the book better than I did, but it frequently seemed much too predictable, as if the author had read many books about the suffering of Nazi victims, and distilled them into the usual vignettes of heroism vs. collaboration, kindness vs. cruelty, generosity vs. meanness, sacrifice vs. selfishness. It's too pat and pretty, despite descriptions of depraved human lapses. People imagining good food while starving, for example, has become almost a cliche along with many of the other little stories. I don't mean it seems inauthentic: just somehow manufactured or mechanical to me.

1 comment:

Maria Verivaki said...

i was inspired by this book review to find out a bit more about the history of these british islands and was surprised to learn that they were occupied by the nazis - you learn something every day!