Reading like a Writer — is reading bad books good for us?
It’s unfair to call THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY a bad book because it has a compelling story line and is an easy read – which I consider high praise because it takes a lot of work to be as easy and as fluid as this. It is loved by many readers ever since it was first published in 2008. The author is Mary Ann Shaffer and this is her only book as she fell ill before it was completed and her niece Annie Burrow helped her complete it. Mary Ann died knowing that her novel would be published in 13 countries. I already feel mean highlighting the mistakes in a book that was written with passion and enthusiasm and represents a lifetime achievement. The Daily Mail chose it as its book of 2008 and said: “You have to be pretty hard-hearted not to fall under its spell” which makes me feel worse.
And I did enjoy reading it. It’s a genuine book with a big feel good factor and we all need that sometimes, but that’s the problem. It feels good about things it has no right to be feel good about…
Let me explain. (I am going to give away some of the story but I will try to keep it to a minimum so if you haven’t read it you can go buy a copy and judge for yourself.) The story is set in Guernsey in 1946 not long after the German occupation and islanders are still dealing with the tragic consequences. I am sure that considerable historical research has gone into writing this novel and I don’t question the events described. BUT the psychological landscape is all wrong. In one scene a 30 something man admits to an elderly lady that she can’t start making romantic matches for him because he is a homosexual. She assures him his secret is safe with her.
Homosexuals weren’t discriminated against: they were criminals. When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated by the Allies in 1945 those prisoners who wore the the pink triangle as a sign of their homosexuality were forced to serve out their full sentence. Imagine that: when the Jews and the trade unionists and the resistance fighters were given their freedom, when the gypsies, the religious leaders and those convicted of ‘ordinary’ crime were set free, homosexuals were not.
The social concerns of a historical period are just as important as the dates of a battle. You might argue that the this character was exceptionally broad minded and compassionate and, although she wasn’t portrayed as such I could perhaps go along with that, but for the fact that the man and woman had only just met – she was putting him up while he was visiting the island. It doesn’t make sense for him to offer a piece of information to a stranger that would have destroyed his professional and personal life had it become public knowledge. he gave away a secret so poisonous in that society at that time that it could easily have landed him in prison. And it’s upsetting because it diminishes the challenges faced by the gay movement in this country and throughout the world in the last 70 years and the courage it has taken to fight the attitudes that were alive and well in the 1940s, the 1950s and persisted even after the 1967 act made homosexuality legal.
And this is not the only place that the novel puts a 21st century slant on the 1940s. A main character who is loved and respected by everyone has an illegitimate child by a German officer. When she is taken away, the community of close friends rallies around and brings up the child themselves. It’s a heart-warming story, but for the fact she has doesn’t have to face the consequences of breaking all the moral codes of her society. Maybe it is hard to imagine just what a stigma unmarried mothers faced back then. If it couldn’t be covered up, they became shunned outsiders, pitied and vulnerable, and their children were also exposed to legal and official discrimination.
And there’s the issue of having a relationship with a Nazi soldier.
It happened. It happened all the time. It must still happen today in occupied countries, because people are people and fall in love even in war time, but I can’t believe there was no price to pay then or now and this character was never asked to pay it.
I do feel mean pointing up the faults in a very warm and gentle book, but it does illustrate that if you are writing about a time or a culture that is not your own facts are not enough, you also have to have an understanding of how people thought and behaved.
As L.P.Hartley said: the past is another country. They do things differently there.