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30 Book Challenge: Book That Made Me Cry

This bestselling historical fiction text is the result of Mary Ann Schaffer’s visit to Guernsey, located in the Channel Islands of the United Kingdom.  According to co- author Annie Barrows’ statements in the novel’s afterword, Schafer began conceptualizing the text after compiling a collection of reading materials about the German occupation of the island during World War II (284). The result is a novel composed of fictional accounts of letter correspondence between and among Guernsey islanders, Londoner and writer, Juliet Ashton, and her family and friends.  Powerful and unique details of life on the island emerge through the collection of letters, which have the ability to draw readers in to a troubling time in the history of the world and Guernsey. By providing differing perspectives, the text communicates the common bonds developed in troubled times.

The use of letters to convey experiences and emotions of several different people provides unbiased personal examples of life during and after the war.  Islanders of alternate religion, gender, and age tell Juliet Ashton, who is interested in writing a book about Guernsey, intricate details of memories and current events:  John Booker, a Jewish man, explains how he came to impersonate Lord Tobias Penn-Piers to avoid identification by German soldiers (91), Eben Ramsey explains how his daughter was forced to send her son, Eli, across the Channel to Britain to protect him (123), and Amelia Maugery describes that thousands of men and boys, Todt workers, were imprisoned by the Nazis on the island (106).  The only person not to provide her own information to Juliet is Elizabeth, the founder of The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society, who was imprisoned and eventually taken to Bergen-Belsen, by the Nazi’s for nursing a starving 16-year-old Todt worker. Since Elizabeth is missing after the war, the other islanders must describe her magnetic and obstinate personality, her kind heart, and love affair with German solder, Christian Hellman, by describing her past actions. It is the power of individual experiences, which depict a combined struggle, that create a compelling novel.

Although each person feels and views the occupation differently, the reader is empathetic and intrigued to read more about the hunger, loss, fear, and hope that bind the islanders together. While one expects most people to feel anger and resentment toward the enemy, the German occupiers, the text reveals that not every person is the same.  Dawsy Adams knew the German, Christian Hellman, the father of Elizabeth’s child, Kit. Dawsey describes him as a good man trapped in a role he did not want (95).  In the midst of many German soldiers meeting a  fate of starvation similar to islanders, Micah Daniel points out their willingness to illegally drop food and coal off of their transport vehicles for suffering islanders to pick up on the road (147).  The reader soon understands the despite the war, love and humanity are more powerful forces than occupation and cruelty.

By interweaving the outlets of reading and literature which come to represent possibility for people in the society, Schafer shows the ability of knowledge and imagination to carry people through the worst times in their lives. In December 2007, Schafer explained her intentions for the novel to convey an unknown and important history. She added, “I hope too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art-be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music-enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised (276).”  The passions her characters exhibit for art communicate a hopeful message that stays with the reader long after the book is finished.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

Film (2013)

Visit Guernsey: Readers may see sights from book