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Tom Chaney: Roast Pig and Charles Lamb

Of Writers And Their Books: Roast Pig and Charles Lamb. Tom reviews The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a story of Nazi occupied Guernsey where residents clung to books and to friends. This column first appeared 17 August 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "Beyond the Light of Day"

By Tom Chaney

Roast Pig and Charles Lamb

I love reading other people's mail. I like the sense of peeking into another's life unbidden. If they are not among the dead and are apt to catch me at it -- all the better. But enough to know that I'm eavesdropping -- even after sixty or ninety years.

Some years ago we acquired some letters that had been written from a Horse Cave father to his daughter off in college in 1918. Much of the content was banal. Often there was a reference to closing the letter to get it in the last mail of the day. Most were postmarked "RPO."

One must be of a certain age to remember the "Railway Post Office" car on most passenger trains. Postal employees sorted mail on the go. Every train might bring a letter.

But the letters gradually got more serious. Soon they began to list the local dead from the influenza epidemic then sweeping the world. Suddenly they stopped.

I showed the letters to a great niece of the writer. She told me that soon after the writing of the last letter we have, the father himself fell victim to the dreaded flu.

Likewise, the epistolary novel -- containing nothing but letters -- has great appeal for me. I have just finished a splendid one. 'Tis by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and is called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society [Dial Press, 2008]. In fact, it's so 2008 that it was just released a week or so ago. After hearing about it on the morning news -- National Public Radio, of course -- I found an advance reading copy on line which had been sent out for reviewers and booksellers prior to publication.

Miss Juliet Ashton, our major correspondent, is an author in London at the end of World War II. She has just finished touring booksellers flogging her most recent book, a collection of short pieces titled Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War.

Juliet receives a letter from a Mr. Dawsey Adams, a farmer on the island of Guernsey. The island has recently been freed from Nazi occupation. Dawsey has discovered Juliet's name written in a book by Charles Lamb.

"I love Charles Lamb." Dawsey writes, "My own book says Selected, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from? These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren't any bookshops left on Guernsey."

Lamb had made him laugh during the occupation -- especially when he wrote about the pig. "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers."

Juliet sends a book to Dawsey.

In his letter of thanks, he explains about the literary society.

His neighbor, Mrs. Maugery, "sent me a note. Come quick, it said. And bring a butcher knife." She had an illicit pig which the Germans had not found and invited her friends to share in an evening of feasting on roast pig and talk.

The German curfew came and went. The gathered group snuck away towards home. John Booker had drunk more than he ate and burst into song. The group was accosted by a German patrol demanding an explanation for their presence after curfew. Elizabeth McKenna manufactured the story on the spot that they had been to a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society discussing a book on German gardens and had forgot the time.

The commandant asked if he and a few officers might come to meetings. The group scurried around and bought up all the books they could find.

Will Thisbee said he was not going to come to a meeting unless there were refreshments. He "concocted a potato peel pie: mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness, and potato peelings for crust."

Juliet envisions a book telling the story of the literary group and the occupation. Ultimately she visits Guernsey and lives in the cottage owned by Elizabeth who had been arrested and taken away by the Germans to a prison camp.

When Juliet visits Guernsey she is immediately enthralled.

She finds unconditional friendship and unlikely love.

And the appeal of books is reinforced. Amelia Maugery writes of the society and how "those who had rarely read anything other than the Scriptures, seed catalogues, and The Pigman's Gazette discovered a different sort of reading."

During the occupation "we clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us."

This novel is a testimony to the ability of man to endure oppression and to the role that literature plays in that endurance.

And roast pig helps as well.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-08-18 01:34:37
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