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Pen Pals

An aunt-and-niece collaboration yields a moving tale of how books can change your life



Mary Ann Shaffer was a fixture in the Marin book world for more than 30 years. Name a place where bibliophiles gather and chances are she worked there: the San Anselmo library, Book Passage, the Larkspur library, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. For three decades it was hard to be a reader and not have come into contact with her gravelly Southern accent and boundless enthusiasm for the written word.

“She liked to read everything,” says niece and collaborator Annie Barrows. “I have this image of her in my mind from when I was a kid. She’d be at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee—a cold cup of coffee—reading while the kids just ran wild all around her.”

 Not only did she love to read stories, she loved to tell them. “Everything was a great story,” says Barrows, author of the best-selling children’s series Ivy and Bean. “There were no dry facts; everything was a charming anecdote. All you had to do was spend 10 minutes with her and you could tell she was a natural writer.”

It’s really no surprise the passionate reader with a knack for telling a good yarn would eventually publish a novel of her own. Not that it didn’t take some nudging. Mary Ann’s writing group “harassed her and harassed her,” Barrows recalls, until finally, after many years of writing, she finished a draft of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The novel sold quickly to a publisher, but still needed some work. This is where her writerly niece, who is also a book editor, came in. “Mary Ann’s health started to fail and there were still lots of revisions to be done,” Barrows recalls. “She called me and asked me if I could do it.”

The novel, due out this month from Dial Press, was born of this unusual collaboration. “The Guernsey was originally her book. It’s her story. I just sort of ran with it,” Barrows says. “My job was like sitting down with my aunt and talking. It felt very easy and natural.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel set in 1946, just as England is emerging from World War II. Juliet Ashton, a writer looking around for her next subject, receives an unexpected letter from a man on the island of Guernsey, occupied by the Nazis during the war.

He has found her name written on the flap of a used book and wonders if she can help him find more books by Charles Lamb. Thus a long-distance friendship, rooted in a mutual love of books, is born.

“The story is about the development of this book group,” Barrows says. “We see all these characters who maybe didn’t read that much and then they become transformed. It’s a very important theme for both Mary Ann and me, the idea that reading really does change your life. In circumstances where you are powerless, you really only have one power, and that is to be free in your mind.”

Sadly, Mary Ann passed away before the American edition of the novel was published. But she did get to see the advance reader’s copy—and hence to know that her labor of love was on its way into the world. “And she got to see the Norwegian edition,” Barrows adds. “She really got a kick out of that.”

An excerpt from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society:

12th January, 1946
Dear Miss Ashton,

My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey. I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you—
The Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb. Your name and address were written inside the front cover.

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

I want to ask a kindness of you. Could you send me the name and address of a bookstore in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writing by mail. I would also like to ask if anyone has written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me? For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr. Lamb must have had great sadness in his life.

Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast 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, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb. I am sorry to bother you, but I would be sorrier still not to know about him, as his writings have made me his friend.

Hoping not to trouble you,
Dawsey Adams


P.S. My friend Mrs. Maugery bough a pamphlet that once belonged to you, too. It is called Was There a Burning Bush? A Defense of Moses and the Ten Commandments. She liked your margin note, “Word of God or crowd control???” Did you ever decide which?

Annie Barrows will discuss and read  from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society at Book Passage on August 10 at 1 p.m.

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