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November 30, 2009

Who Took Their Book Group to Guernsey?

Posted by webmaster
Back in May we announced the "Take Your Book Group to Guernsey" contest held by the Random House Publishing Group to celebrate the paperback publication of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The winning group --- out of 56,000 entries --- was the Wesley Chapel G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Reading In The South) from North Carolina. They were treated to a four-day trip to Guernsey, the English Channel isle where the story is set, dinner with the winning reading group from the U.K. and a guided tour of the island. Click
here to watch the BBC television segment about "Potato Peel" tourism and featuring the winning book clubs.

Today we talk with Mary Bonelli about her group's literary adventure. Mary is the author of the
Book Lovers 2010 Calendar, which is filled with pictures, literary facts and stories, author birthdays and more. A portion of the proceeds are donated to First Book, a nonprofit organization that provides books to disadvantaged children. What inspired your book club to enter the contest? Had you already read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?

Mary Bonelli:
One of our members, Elaine Rosoff, suggested the book to us and she mentioned the contest that went along with it. She thought it would be fun to enter even though "nobody ever wins these things"! We only read the book this past July, and we were ready to discuss it at our August meeting. The book had been gaining in popularity with book clubs so we decided to give it a read. We got the news about winning the contest the week before our August meeting. So a book discussion on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was VERY appropriate!

RGG: How did visiting Guernsey enhance your perception of the book?

We could not have been more pleased with the reality of Guernsey. As you read any book, you get a mental picture of what you think the surroundings will look like. The real Guernsey easily surpassed what we all imagined. You truly could picture Juliet, Kit, Dawsey and the whole cast of characters walking about the streets that we were walking on. Looking out onto the beaches and realizing these were the same beaches that the people of Guernsey could not walk on during the Occupation because they were covered with explosives. And at the same time, the beautiful countryside, dotted with those colorful Guernsey cows and fascinating architecture were also a part of the Occupation. The experience completely brought the book to life for us.

RGG: Your book club joined one from the UK to talk about the book. What were some of the highlights of the discussion?

One theme that kept coming up in our discussion was the power of books. Juliet and Dawsey began corresponding because of his discovery of her book. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came to be because of books and how books created some type of normalcy for them during at time of complete kayos. And this wonderful book was the reason for bringing my book club together with another group of book lovers from Winchester, England for an adventure of a lifetime. Books are indeed powerful stuff!

The other main topic of discussion was the resiliency of the people of Guernsey during the Occupation. From having to adjust to the Germans living among them in their everyday lives to making the heart wrenching decision of sending their children away for who knows how long or to take your chances and have them stay on the island. The Germans were there to stay. They changed all the street signs to German, they made it mandatory to teach the German language in the schools, built new buildings for their purposes and even took over peoples homes. The way of life for the people of Guernsey had changed forever.

RGG: What can you tell us about meeting and talking with some of the people who lived through the island's occupation?

We had a second book discussion at the Guille-Alles Library and the public was invited to take part in the discussion. We were so fortunate that at least a dozen of the Occupation survivors were able to join us. They were all children during WWII and they are now in their 70s and 80s. To hear their stories first-hand was a treasure beyond belief. Some of them were sent away to England while others stayed on the island with their families. We heard a funny story of how one woman, Molly Bihet, and her sister would wait for the potato truck to come down the street. Sometimes the German soldier on the truck would kick a few potatoes off the truck and the girls would scoop them up and bring home --- quite a treasure. Molly wrote a book called A Child's War that is well worth the read. It is filled with extraordinary pictures and a first-hand account of the Occupation through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl.

Another story we heard told of how scarce food was near the end of the Occupation and how so many elderly people literally starved to death. One man whose family owned a bakery in town told us they had to get very creative in what they ground down to use as "flour." When the Liberating Forces finally came to the island and supplies started becoming available again, the first loaf of bread that was baked at his bakery with real flour was an event to behold. While the man was telling us this story, tears actually fell down his cheek as he remembered the emotions that he felt so many year ago as that loaf of bread was coming out of the oven. It was truly a living history lesson that we will never forget. We so often take our freedoms for granted in this day and age, but hearing these stories reminds us to be grateful.

RGG: What was the most memorable moment for you during your visit to Guernsey?

It's hard to pick just one moment but meeting the Occupation survivors is certainly one of the highlights. To have the opportunity to just walk the streets of Guernsey with our tour guide, Gill Girard, made us all feel like actual members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. To walk to the WWII memorial and read the Guernsey names; seeing the forethought that went into the Occupation Memorial in the form of a sundial representing the events that took place on Liberation Day; passing by Calais Lane where Eben Ramsey lived; walking through The Little Chapel (above) and being in awe of the millions and millions of pottery and china pieces and of course the Guernsey cows! How lucky were we?!?

RGG: Is your group interested in taking other book-related trips together, or have you done so in the past? Where would you most like to go?

Some of our members have actually thought about this. At the very least we think we should take a yearly trip together. We could always go to Key West and discuss Hemingway, or to Beacon Hill in Boston to check in with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Charles Dickens and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And if we absolutely had to venture back across the Pond again to Dublin, Ireland, to see the bronze statue of James Joyce or to walk "The Great Hall" at Trinity College, so be it. Or maybe there will be another wonderful literary contest we can enter "that nobody ever wins"!