Just recently we stumbled across an exclusive blog from Annie Barrows, co-author of the author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book. Annie completed writing the book after Mary Ann Shaffer sadly passed away before the book was published.
We have many arguments, in my family, about where my aunt Mary Ann Shaffer was trying to go when she landed at the Guernsey Airport in October 1980. Some of us think she was headed for Sark. Some of us think she must have been aiming for Brittany. Some think she was just lost. But we all agree on one thing: Mary Ann was not intending to go to Guernsey. She never mentioned the island in her letters. She never talked about it. As far as we can tell, she didn’t know anything about Guernsey when she stepped off the plane the Guernsey Airport.
It’s enough to make you believe in fate.
The moment she arrived in Guernsey, a remarkable series of events occurred to keep her there. First, as she always reported, a “terrible fog boiled out of the sea, shrouding the island in gloom.” Instantly, the airport closed. The ferry service shut down. Mary Ann, determined to get wherever it was she wanted to go, decided to hunker down and wait the fog out. The fog was equally determined to keep Mary Ann on the spot as long as possible, so it lingered for thirty-six hours. Above all things, Mary Ann was a desperate reader, and she always kept a slew of books on her person for this kind of eventuality—but thirty-six hours is a long time. She read through all the books in her bag, then she read all the newspapers strewn about in the waiting area, and finally she crept into the depopulated airport gift store in search of something, anything, to read. There, she found two books, Jersey Under the Jackboot and The Silent War; there, she learned for the first time of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War; and there, she began her lifelong obsession with Guernsey and its wartime experiences.
It’s easy to understand what caught her attention. Mary Ann, like most Americans, had never heard of the Occupation, and the idea of Nazis invading British territory—and remaining there for five years—was more than just shocking. It was an outrageous inversion of the historical order.
The more Mary Ann read about the Occupation, the more indignant she grew about its relative obscurity. Why hadn’t she known about this before? Why didn’t everyone know about it? While there’s certainly something satisfying in the standard war narrative, with the bad guys bloodily dispatched by the good guys, Mary Ann was always more interested the human stories of war, the ones about individuals who fought against the odds, who held on to humanity in inhumane circumstances, and who maintained their principles at the peril of their lives. All of these attributes can be found in the history of Guernsey’s Occupation, but there was another element unique to the Guernsey experience Mary Ann found particularly compelling: how the concept of an enemy evolved—and dissolved—over five years of enforced cohabitation and privation. Guernsey tells a story about how individuals triumph in the end over categories.
True to her destination (whatever it was), Mary Ann left Guernsey when the fog lifted, having seen very little of the island that was to become the center of the world for her over the next twenty-five years. But she was hooked; when she came back home to California, she began reading everything she could find about Guernsey and its Occupation, as well as about resistance movements on the Continent during World War II, and of course about Hitler’s bizarre obsession with the Channel Islands. Bit by bit, she gathered a library of material about all aspects of Guernsey’s war experience, from potato peel pies and the hairstyles favored by the Nazi invaders to the tragic Todt-workers who were impressed into hard labor to effect Hitler’s lunatic vision and the slow starvation of islanders and invaders alike after D-Day. When I look through these books now, I see scribbled notes on nearly every page, underlinings, cross-references, exclamation points—many of them next to the stories of Occupation survivors, the first person accounts of the experience that so captured her imagination. I can see, on these pages, an objective interest transform into a subjective one. I can see her start to take the Occupation personally, to think about how, exactly, this kind of character or that kind would behave, endure, collaborate, suffer, betray, defy, or die. Once you’ve imagined a world so intensely as to make it yours, you are terribly bereft when you’re obliged to return to reality, because reality, however pleasant, excludes the company of these cherished friends and deeply transformative experiences. How can you regain them? How can you talk about them? The real world, too, was frustratingly ignorant about Guernsey’s Occupation. As my aunt’s fascination increased, so did her longing to share it, to make Guernsey the place to others that it was to her.
There was really no alternative: Mary Ann picked up her pen and began to write The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.