Turning darkness into light

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I just finished, for the fifth time, a book titled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The only other book I’ve read as many times is Gone with the Wind. Four of those reads happened between seventh grade and 12th grade, the final read when I was 20 or so. It took me that many trips through the story to figure out that Rhett was done with Scarlett. Prior to that I figured he really did give a damn.

But this Potato Peel Pie Society book has yet to lose its charm for me. I do not tire of the writing, the story or the people. It is full of beauty and questioning, things we humans are stunned by on a regular basis. The lives of the Guernsey Islanders are revealed through letters between them and a London writer who wants to tell their stories. Throughout, the book is full of the human spirit rising above malevolence.

In that, it is always a book for the times.

It was written about the 1940 to 1945 Nazi occupation of Guernsey, one island in Britain’s Channel Islands, where on a clear day one can see France. The Nazis bomb the island, then occupy it.

At first, they are somewhat genial, considering they are the enemy, but their lying ways soon morph into cruelty: they take all the livestock for themselves, order the islanders to grow only potatoes and turnips if they want to eat, confiscate their radios and flat-out falsify the tides of war, set curfews that change by the day. They kill islanders for slight infractions and send others to prison camps in Germany for helping one another.

One of the Guernsey men says after the war, “I hated the Occupation…. Makes me mad to think of it. Some of those blighters was purely mean… push you around. They was the sort to like having the upper hand…their motto ‘Get even.’”

Just before the bombing by enemy forces, the children of Guernsey are shipped off island to the interior of England to save their lives. This is such a horrific situation that friends without children are asked to be the ones to put the children on the refugee boats, for the parents cannot bear the thought of their offspring clinging to them crying, begging, “Why do we have to leave you?”

It was the memory of this passage – “…all those little children bereft in the world, I was glad I did not have any…” — that prompted me to read the book again, in this particular news cycle.

The Nazi occupiers, whose increasing demands quickly terrify the native farming and fishing families, grow more unbearable by the day. But a few Guernseyites meet anyway to read books and share whatever strange concoctions of food they can come up with (potato peel pie, for example). The Literary Society survives as a stalwart group through the “distraction of reading” as they briefly escape despair whenever they can talk about books and authors.

What is most important about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is its pertinence through the years I’ve read it (it was published in 2009), and especially right now. This historical novel is one more tale piled on many versions across the world and over the centuries of good people turning darkness into light. The need for this repetitive story throughout humans’ long and troublesome history arises again and again; we think we are becoming better and suddenly some rude guy comes to power.

I’m learning that gathering in the name of literature does provide some light.

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