DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Put together the wartime Nazi occupation of an island off the British coast and an improbable recipe for pie, and you have the ingredients for a delightful novel by Mary Ann Shaffer. The book, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," was written as a series of letters. The novel itself is a love letter to writing and to books.
It's 1946. World War II is finally over. The main character, Juliet Ashton, lives in bombed-out London. She's a former newspaper columnist who has one moderately successful book to her credit. She's looking for something to write about for her second book when she gets a letter from Guernsey. Her subject has found her.
Over time, she becomes intimately bound up in the islanders' lives through her correspondence with them. First-time novelist Mary Ann Shaffer wrote the book late in life, after a long career as a librarian. Her niece, Annie Barrows, already a published author, helped with the final editing. Annie Barrows, welcome.
Ms. ANNIE BARROWS (Author): Thank you.
AMOS: Tell us how you got involved in this book.
Ms. BARROWS: When Mary Ann sold the book, there was a lot of work to be done for publication, and it was right about at that point that Mary Ann's health began to fail, and she asked me to finish the book for her.
She died in February, which is heartbreaking to me, although I do keep looking over my shoulder because I think she must be here somewhere watching everybody enjoy her book.
AMOS: What inspired her to write the book?
Ms. BARROWS: Well, she went to Guernsey in 1976, sort of on a whim. And she flew into Guernsey, and a terrible fog enveloped the island, and the plane service and the ferry service were cut off, and she was stuck for 72 hours. She says she spent the entire time in the men's room under the hand dryer - because the hand dryer in the women's room was broken - trying to keep herself warm and reading every book in the Guernsey airport bookstore. And that was where she learned of the occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War, and those stories that she read stuck with her for over 20 years. And when her writing group finally forced her to sit down and begin writing a novel, the story of Guernsey's occupation was what came to her.
AMOS: That's one of the most remarkable parts of this book. I knew nothing about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey. Let's start out setting a little time and place. I'd like you to read one of the letters to Juliet, the main character. Let's start with page 105.
Ms. BARROWS: Okay.
(Reading) Hitler was fanatic about fortifying these islands. England was never to get them back. His generals called it island madness. He ordered large gun emplacements, anti-tank walls on the beaches, hundreds of bunkers and batteries, arms and bomb depots, miles and miles of underground tunnels, a huge underground hospital and a railroad to cross the island to carry materials. The coastal fortifications were absurd. The Channel Islands were better fortified than the Atlantic wall, built against an allied invasion. The installations jutted out over every bay. The Third Reich was to last 1,000 years in concrete.
AMOS: Now, how does the literary society come to be named?
Ms. BARROWS: Well, a group of neighbors and friends on the Island of Guernsey had a secret roast-pig dinner one night. It was illegal to have a - to keep a pig on the island. The German authorities wanted all the pigs for themselves. So the group of friends had a secret dinner, and they stayed so late over their tasty meal that they were breaking curfew.
They decided to go home anyway, and just as they hit the road, the German patrol officers leaped out of the bushes and told them they were under arrest.
One of their members managed to summon up enough courage to say oh, we're so terribly sorry. We were just having a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society, and we got so excited about discussing our book that we lost all track of the time. Would you care to come to our next meeting?
And the patrol officer's heart is softened, and he says all right, I won't arrest you. And yes, I would like to come to your next meeting and lets them all go.
Well, of course, then they have to create the Guernsey Literary Society just in case the officer does show up. And that was the beginning of the club.
AMOS: The people that Juliet encounters through her correspondence, they all connect, it all revolves around one woman, and that's Elizabeth. She's missing at the center of this story because she's not on the island. And what does Juliet learn about her?
Ms. BARROWS: Well, Elizabeth is brave and funny and determined to save all of her friends from trouble. And she does that over and over again. She's the one that creates the literary society. She's the one that saves another character, John Booker(ph), because he's half-Jewish, but she convinces him that he can't tell anybody that. She over and over again is the courageous one whom everybody turns to in their trouble.
AMOS: One of the great themes of this book is these islanders, some of them taciturn, you know, farmers, are changed by reading. Talk a little bit about that.
Ms. BARROWS: Well, the book does explore an idea that both Mary Ann and I hold very dear, which is that reading really can save your life. And this group of farmers and fishermen, when they begin to read, they discover that books are a place to go, a place of refuge, that when they talk about books, when they read books, when they feel deeply about what they're reading, they can forget what's going on outside the doors. They can forget that they live in an occupied territory, that the people who are running the island are brutal. They can forget all the sorrows that they're experiencing in their daily life. And they become the kind of reader that we all want to be, devoted and passionate and in love with literature.
AMOS: Did your aunt impart that kind of love of literature to you?
Ms. BARROWS: Yes. My aunt is one of the two greatest readers I've ever encountered. And the other one is my mother. Every time I picture Mary Ann, I picture her as I always saw her throughout my entire childhood, sitting at her dining room table with a cup of cold coffee by her side and a stack of books next to her, all of them with those plastic covers that come on library books, and she would read one, read it through, put it aside and read another. You know, she was a great, great reader.
AMOS: Annie Barrows is the co-author of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society." She completed the book after her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, died.
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AMOS: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.